The ABCs of Death: Anthrax, Bruce Ivins, and Congress

by Stephen Taylor and Michael Krug

On October 16th, 2001, an unsuspecting staffer in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle opened a letter from US Army biodefense scientist Bruce Ivins packed with Bacillus anthracis spores.  The anthrax-causing agent aerosolized, immediately exposing 28 Senate staffers to the deadly agent.  Senator Daschle recalled the events of the anthrax attacks in a recent discussion with Biodefense students at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.  Daschle reminisced on his sense of powerlessness as he rushed to his office in the Hart Senate Building.  He also recalled the chaos in the immediate aftermath of the attack. First responders and federal investigators were overwhelmingly unprepared for a biological attack, evident by the fact that exposed staffers were cleared to leave the office building and return home without undergoing decontamination of any kind. The following day federal investigators requested that the staffers bring their anthrax-laden clothes back to work to be surrendered to the investigation.  That nobody in the Hart building died in the aftermath of the attack is a feat that Senator Daschle attributes to the meticulous supervision and leadership of Dr. Greg Martin, who oversaw medical care of those exposed in the Hart building.

The events of October 2001 forced political leaders to reconsider how biodefense fit into the national security agenda. Sen. Daschle reflected on three lessons learned throughout this process, which included: 1) revamping mail security, 2) rethinking large-scale emergency responses, and 3) developing contingency plans for biological events.  Despite efforts to harden America’s biosecurity posture, however, our national biodefense enterprise today remains fractured, inefficient, and largely dysfunctional. One such example is the application of the BioWatch program. Technical shortcomings and false-positives have plagued the program from its conception. However, while the frustration of the program has been clear, there must remain a drive for innovation from all involved in the biodefense network.

A major driving force behind reorganizing the U.S. biodefense direction has come from the  Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, of which Sen. Daschle is a co-chair. The panel has worked diligently since 2014 to persuade administrations to implement strategies that harness the U.S. biodefense network. In 2018, the Trump administration published their National Biodefense Strategy. The strategy called upon the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be the prime coordinator of the strategy.  Within the Cabinet, however, HHS is widely viewed as lacking the clout to overcome interdepartmental vying and deploy a coherent strategy to the executive branch. This decision to delegate coordination authority to an agency outside of the executive office was deemed ineffective by Sen. Daschle and the Blue Ribbon’s original National Blueprint for Biodefense. Instead, their panel advocated for a level of authority only carried by the President and Vice President. The lack of interdepartmental convening authority at the helm of the biodefense enterprise plagues the successful implementation of preparedness and response initiatives.

On the legislative side, there are over 60 congressional committees and subcommittees with some responsibility for biodefense.  It is impossible for that many actors to coordinate their efforts, meaning that the governing branch with budgetary authority is not able to cost national biodefense in a coherent way.  Senator Daschle observed that, while most Congressional representatives are concerned with biodefense, it seems to be everyone’s “fifth or sixth priority.”  As a country, we have been lucky that places far away from us, like Brazil and West Africa, have borne the brunt of recent pandemics.  As a consequence, however, legislators fail to view biodefense with the appropriate urgency.

As a result of political paralysis over biodefense, private sector companies are unable to lend their considerable innovative talent and resources to address biological threats.  The medical countermeasure (MCM) industry’s principal client is the United States government.  Currently, the U.S. government’s primary interaction with the industry is to purchase MCMs in batches, years apart, to stockpile in case of emergencies. Without a steady demand for countermeasures, the industry cannot turn an attractive profit.  Worse still, when drugs and biologics are only manufactured in periodic bursts, production expertise is difficult to advance or even simply maintain.  If the MCM industry is going to be an effective partner in strengthening national biodefense, it needs the U.S. government to incentivize companies with multiyear funding commitments that deliver profitability while also providing the stability to unlock the innovative potential of the market.

Finally, national biodefense strategy cannot be a federal responsibility alone.  First responders are principally found at the local level. Senator Daschle praised states like Kansas that have performed exemplary work in coordinating local resources like first responders and universities to maximize their response impact in the face of a biological event.  Such state and local level leadership must be emulated across the board.

In order to foster the full protective potential of the U.S. biodefense enterprise, national and local leaders must raise the profile of biothreats to the U.S. to engender greater coordination among Federal, state, and local agencies and higher funding levels.  In the wake of the Amerithrax letters of 2001, this confluence of strategy and funding briefly materialized, but have since fallen to the wayside. This fundamental failure to recognize a glaring demand for biodefense strategies is one of the reasons that Sen. Daschle continues to advocate for strengthening decision-making authority in the executive and legislative branches and increasing funding for this vital area of national security. It is crucial that policymakers not allow the gruesome lessons of this attack to be forgotten or wait for another incident to relearn them.

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