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Panel Calls on U.S. to Improve WMD Countermeasures Development

A national advisory panel has called for an improved U.S. program to produce medical treatments that could be used to counter the effects of WMD agents, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported Friday (see GSN, Feb. 5).

The National Biodefense Science Board recommended in a 103-page draft report that the Health and Human Services Department collaborate with the White House on a "unifying end-to-end national strategy" for handling chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear dangers.

The report highlights three areas where more work needs to be done on the development of medical countermeasures: "prioritization" of the WMD dangers and the required treatments, "synchronization" of activities throughout the federal government, and "anticipation" of the complications that would arise in the delivery of treatments.

"To do all of that, you need leadership," Merck vaccine expert John Grabenstein said. "If there is not a concerted effort, if there's not a voice reminding people to keep the emphasis on these weapons countermeasures during periods of calm, we will be taken by surprise."

Recommended coordination with the White House on WMD threats could include creating a new seat on the National Security Council to direct efforts, the report says.

"Our most important conclusion is that leadership, discipline, and synchronized effort are not lacking but are unfocused," it reads. "This problem can be overcome by the HHS secretary assembling the agency leaders, designating the [the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response] as the coordinating authority, and directing a synchronized, prioritized, common effort toward the nation's goals."

The report calls on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speedily identify "at least three high-priority new [medical countermeasures] the department will develop to counter CBRN threats, with target time lines. At least one of these should address radiation exposure."

Which three WMD health threats should be prioritized were not specified.

"We have all the efforts since 2001 -- surely the top three or top few should be apparent," Grabenstein said.

The panel urged "consistent, adequate and balanced funding" for WMD treatment development. It recommended that Sebelius ascertain all countermeasure funding requirements for fiscal 2011 and seek to have the Obama administration's budget request to Congress amended where necessary.

A strategy for acquiring multiyear funding authority and to operate Project Bioshield past its current 2013 expiration date were also advised.

The board also recommended a concerted public awareness education campaign on WMD dangers (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy release, March 26).

NTI Analysis