by Judith Miller, The New York Times
Spurred by the spate of anthrax- filled letters that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has decided to seek $11 billion over two years to protect the nation against biological terrorism, a far larger amount than even bio defense experts had expected.
Senior administration officials said President Bush's budget for fiscal 2003, which begins in October, would propose $5.9 billion to finance improvements in the nation's public health system that would help defend against the deliberate use of disease as a weapon. This request comes on top of $1.4 billion that Congress approved in the last fiscal year and a $3.7 billion supplemental request for countering bioterrorism that has also been approved.
The anthrax-tainted letters, which killed 5 people, infected 18 and put 30,000 Americans on antibiotics, were the first significant biological attack in the United States. Officials said they laid bare serious vulnerabilities, particularly in public health.
The new budget request reflects an effort to address those weaknesses. It also reflects the growing influence of the Office of Homeland Security, headed by Tom Ridge.
The budget increase, to $5.9 billion from $1.4 billion, is more than four times what the administration spent before the Sept. 11 attacks to counter the threat of bioterrorism.
"The anthrax letters showed us that even a relatively unsophisticated, small-scale attack can cause enormous disruption since our toolbox for countering such strikes is fairly bare," said a senior administration official. "And compared to the full destructive potential of biological warfare, the anthrax letters were a slingshot."
A breakdown of the bioterrorism budget request shows that President Bush wants to pump not only $1.8 billion into federal agencies involved in biodefense but also $1.6 billion into state and local health care systems that have suffered from years of low budgets and federal neglect.
The proposed budget provides $650 million to expand the national stockpile of vaccines and antibiotics that can be rushed to the scene of a disease outbreak, as well as billions of dollars to finance the construction of high-level containment laboratories and to conduct basic and applied research into new drugs, biodetectors and improvements in communications and other systems that link local, state and federal emergency preparedness authorities.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said the huge infusion of federal aid for basic and applied research was likely to be "transforming."
"The $1.75 billion request for the National Institutes of Health alone is the biggest single-year request for any discipline or institute in the history of the N.I.H.," Dr. Fauci said. "This is the first time that an extraordinary amount of money is being increased expressly for bioterrorism rather than for the general enhancement of capabilities." But, he added, because of this investment "we may all be healthier."
Dr. Fauci is expected to travel with President Bush to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to announce details of the administration's biodefense plans. The budget figures themselves will be formally announced on Monday.
Spending to protect the United States against germ weapons began increasing under President Bill Clinton, who said he considered a biological attack to be one of the gravest threats confronting the nation. While his administration began increasing budgets to counter the threat, many of Mr. Clinton's requests were cut by his own Office of Management and Budget or the Congress, which remained skeptical.
After the Sept. 11 strikes and the anthrax-laden letters in October, Mr. Ridge selected biodefense as one of the four crucial areas in domestic security that would receive huge budget increases, in addition to airport security. Large spending increases are expected for each of the other three areas: money for emergency response personnel and activities will rise from $291 million to $3.5 billion and spending on border security from $8.7 billion to $10.6 billion, while spending on information technology and security is expected to increase by some $700 million. In total, officials said, the domestic security budget for 2003 would increase from $19.15 billion to $37.7 billion.
Dr. Fauci said he was putting the final touches on a strategic plan for spending the new money at his institute, which is scheduled to receive a 61 percent increase. He said he would spend about $441 million of the $1.75 billion budget on basic research, some $592 million on drug and vaccine discovery and development, $194 million on trials of new drugs, and $522 million on new research laboratories at federal, university and industry facilities.
"You need appropriate facilities to work on dangerous microbes that can be used for weapons," Dr. Fauci said. "And we must jump-start our efforts to get new facilities and expertise into existing centers of biological excellence." He noted that there are now only four of the highest containment facilities, which require scientists to wear protective suits and respirators, in the United States.
The budget also calls for increasing the national supply of "push packs" — the preassembled packages containing life-saving antidotes, drugs and other medical supplies that can be sent to the sites of terrorist attacks or mysterious infectious outbreaks. In the last fiscal year, the national supply of push packs — each of which provides enough for two million people — rose from 8 to 12.
Some $600 million will go to the Pentagon, of which about $420 million will be used to speed efforts to develop better devices and systems to detect and identify the release of dangerous germs in the atmosphere or water. The rest will be spent on biodefense research and development, much of it at the United States Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., which conducted biological weapons research before such weapons were banned in 1969, and now develops antidotes to and defenses against such pathogens. The laboratory has been heavily involved in trying to analyze the origins and source of the anthrax letters sent to the Senate and to media outlets in New York and Florida.
The budget also devotes $10 million to creating a team of epidemiological scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta who will work with their foreign counterparts to provide better information about mysterious disease outbreaks and share news about promising new drugs and antidotes. It earmarks another $20 million for the centers' Epidemiological Intelligence Service, established in 1951 as an early-warning system against biological warfare.