WHO Officials Say U.S. Bioterrorist Defenses Are Misguided

Several World Health Organization officials have criticized U.S. plans to respond to possible bioterrorist attacks, saying that Washington is seeking domestic solutions to an international problem and is underfunding the international organization, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Oct. 23).

“It’s understandable for them to say we’ll do it ourselves instead of relying on a bunch of U.N. pinkos,” said Patrick Drury, project manager of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, suggesting that a better strategy would be to bolster an international system that can identify and stop epidemics where they begin.

“We’d like to see the United States engage in this as a multilateral effort,” Drury said. “They seem to be unilateral or bilateral in what they are doing,” he added.

Although the United States is a major funder of WHO activities, the organization has not yet received $10 million that was promised this year to improve its disease detection capability, according to the Post.

“The U.S. has not made an investment in global public health and the World Health Organization that anywhere matches the magnitude of the global health threat,” said public health specialist Margaret Hamburg of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “We cannot address this problem by going it alone or by developing relationships on a one-on-one and ad-hoc basis,” she said.

U.S. health officials refuted the charge, saying the United States was trying to balance domestic and international strategies.

“This is a hollow complaint,” said Health and Human Services Department spokesman Bill Pierce. “I don’t know why they are complaining. Maybe they are covering up for some of their shortcomings,” he added.

Difficulties in coordinating the international response to a bioterrorist attack were highlighted in a recent multilateral exercise called “Global Mercury,” the Post reported (see GSN, Oct. 23).

In that simulation, terrorists infected themselves with smallpox and boarded commercial aircraft to several nations. Exercise participants in eight nations had problems working together, Drury said, and WHO officials were called in to mediate even though they were originally slated only to observe the simulated attack.

“The practicality of ongoing teleconferences with eight different countries and different cultural backgrounds and different languages and different priorities” was extremely difficult, Drury said.

“If you have problems between democratic countries, you can imagine what will happen if you put Iran and North Korea in the picture,” said Diego Buriot, director of the WHO’s Department of Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response in Lyon, France.

Other WHO officials complained that although they might be asked to respond to an international smallpox outbreak, there is no program in place to vaccinate them against the disease. In addition, they said international disease surveillance systems need improvement, considering that more than 100 nations have no system at all to detect outbreaks (Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, Nov. 5).

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by National Journal Group.]

November 5, 2003
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Several World Health Organization officials have criticized U.S. plans to respond to possible bioterrorist attacks, saying that Washington is seeking domestic solutions to an international problem and is underfunding the international organization, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Oct. 23).

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