Pentagon redirects priorities in chemical-biological defense.

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Position:Domestic Threats
 
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The Pentagon will broaden the scope of its chemical and biological defense programs, in an effort to prepare for future domestic emergencies, officials say.

Major concerns are the Defense Department's inability to respond to a mass-casualty biological attack and to keep adequate supplies of vaccines and medicines to treat a wide array of potentially deadly bugs--ranging from bacterial anthrax to botulinum toxin and the smallpox virus.

Despite false alarms about biological weapons in Iraq before U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime two years ago, U.S. officials express certainty that an enemy country or terrorist organization one day will strike a major metropolitan area in the United States with deadly pathogens. Even if the attack caused a relatively small number of casualties, experts agree, the ensuing chaos and panic likely would cripple that city.

The Defense Department gradually has recognized the need to boost resources in the medical field to help counter bioterrorism, says Klaus O. Schafer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense.

Schafer oversees a more than a billion-dollar yearly operation that is focused primarily on developing technologies for military use. In recent months, however, the course of the program has changed. The military is directing more emphasis to homeland defense.

"We are taking a more holistic approach," he says in an interview. "This program has been focused too much on individual products." The Pentagon, he says, wants to work more closely with the "first-responder community" and ensure that the money spent actually leads to useful capabilities.

The Defense Department has tried to define its role in homeland security since 9/11, but has not been successful yet, Schafer adds. The upshot is that "the people on the ground," meaning the first responders and medical emergency personnel at the state and local levels, do not have a clear line of communication with the Pentagon. This makes it difficult for them to convey their equipment needs.

Schafer says his office intends to help fill existing gaps in U.S. defenses against bioterrorism, particularly the shortage of vaccines and drugs to help treat victims. "The biggest area I have focused on in the past months is the medical side," he says.

Despite billions of dollars spent on homeland defense, experts warn, the United States has yet to figure out how to deal with biowarfare. "Terrorist groups could use pathogens to...

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