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Last Updated

10 Dec 2002

Source: Associated Press, April 18, 2002.

Thompson acknowledges confusion over who's in charge of bioterrorism cases

By JEFFREY McMURRAY, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - Congress may have to intervene to clear up confusion over whether law enforcement or health agencies are in charge of bioterrorism investigations, the secretary of Health and Human Services said Thursday.

Tommy Thompson told a Senate panel that his department has enjoyed "great cooperation" with the FBI on anthrax cases, but conflicting federal regulations make it unclear who has the final say.

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., contended the confusion threatens to put critical evidence, such as anthrax spores, in the hands of criminal investigators rather than health officials who can better warn and protect the public from outbreaks.

"You have the resources, and you ought to be the lead dog," Cleland told Thompson during the Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

Thompson did not endorse Cleland's proposal to make the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the lead agency on bioterrorism investigations. He acknowledged, however, that it would help for CDC to get the evidence first so it can issue a public health alert if necessary.

"I personally think CDC should get this stuff immediately," Thompson said.

Anthrax-tainted letters delivered last fall to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., were sent first to an Army research lab in Fort Detrick, Md. Only later did the CDC get small samples of the anthrax to study.

An executive order by President Clinton in 1995 designated the FBI as lead agency for all domestic terror incidents. But an order signed last year by President Bush gave that authority to the director of homeland security.

Also, Congress approved the Public Health Service Act and the Public Health Threats and Emergencies Act last year, which put CDC and the secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of bioterrorism matters.

"We've got about 20 different agencies involved in bioterrorism," Cleland said. "What I'm trying to do here is sort out the protocol."

Thompson didn't endorse a specific piece of legislation but said after the hearing that Congress is best equipped to clarify the procedures.

When asked by committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 the country's readiness for another act of bioterror, Thompson said: "Six, going on seven."

Most states have submitted emergency response plans for bioterrorism attacks, Thompson said. Most plans, especially for particularly deadly outbreaks like smallpox, would require an area to be quarantined and nearby residents vaccinated, starting with health and emergency personnel.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., asked why these so-called "first responders" aren't vaccinated now. Thompson said the department is considering doing that, although his spokesman said later the discussions are just beginning.