IOM Sounds Civilian Bioterror Alert

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Worried about a looming new era of terrorism, a scientific panel urged the government today to step up efforts to protect civilians from emerging chemical and biological threats.

The report, released here by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), calls for the Public Health Service to build up local health surveillance networks and emergency services. It also seeks the creation of a national stockpile of antidotes and vaccines that could be airlifted to the site of an attack anywhere in the United States. The expert group, chaired by emergency medicine specialist Peter Rosen of the University of California, San Diego, also presents a long list of research needs. Among other things, the report recommends studies on how to conduct medical triage on a large scale, the development of new biohazard detection equipment, better anthrax and smallpox vaccines, and more efficient protective gear.

While the Pentagon has invested billions of dollars to protect troops against biological and chemical attack, the report notes, these "traditional military approaches" are not suitable for dealing with civilian settings, where future attacks may occur. Despite the "very low probability" of a terrorist attack on any particular site, the IOM offers a 220-page agenda to remedy the lack of civilian preparedness. Many of the proposals, the report says, are meant to strengthen local public health networks, making them "valuable even if no attack ever occurs."

The IOM report has been warmly received at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), home of the Public Health Service. Margaret Hamburg, HHS's assistant secretary for planning, concedes that "we are very inadequately prepared" for the kind of panic that would result from a bioterrorist attack. And HHS spokesperson Campbell Gardett says, "We welcome the report," adding that "we are in the process of formulating a plan that will lay out in detail how we will use" about $150 million Congress gave HHS for bioterrorism defense in a special 1999 appropriation.