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Clinton Calls for Germ War Antidotes

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 1998; Page A01

   President Clinton has decided to order the stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics to treat massive numbers of civilians in the event of an attack against the United States using biological weapons, according to sources familiar with the plan.

While the Pentagon already has accumulated some medicines to shield American troops from a handful of germ warfare agents, no similar reserves exist for civilians.

The prospect that an enemy state or terrorist group might unleash a deadly pathogen or toxin, capable of killing tens of thousands of people in a U.S. city, has become an increasing concern among national security specialists. Although experts differ on the near-term likelihood of such a threat, Clinton's order is the latest and most ambitious of several recent administration initiatives to improve the way military and civilian authorities cope with domestic attacks through a latter-day civil defense.

Clinton's personal interest in the subject is said by aides to have deepened in recent weeks, spurred by books and briefings. After listening in early April to an outside panel of seven specialists discuss the poor condition of U.S. biological and chemical defenses, Clinton sought the group's recommendations on how to deal with a biological attack. In a subsequent 16-page report, the panel urged Clinton to begin the stockpile program and take other steps to strengthen the ability of the nation's public health system to respond rapidly.

Details about how fast to build the stockpiles and how to pay for them are still being discussed by senior administration officials. Plans call for Clinton to announce the initiative during a commencement address tomorrow at the Naval Academy in Annapolis that will focus on the administration's stepped-up efforts to combat terrorism of various kinds.

Establishing stockpiles for dozens of U.S. cities could easily cost billions of dollars and require years before adequate levels are reached, according to experts. A Pentagon program to develop and produce as many as 18 new vaccines to protect U.S. military forces during wartime was initiated last year at an estimated cost of $320 million over five years. A civilian stockpile program would cover a much larger population and require millions more doses.

It also would require scientific innovations. Anthrax is the only potential germ weapon for which a vaccine has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and is being produced in the United States. Other vaccines are under development but have yet to prove safe for human use. While it is unclear whether the administration is discussing inoculations for civilians as a preventive measure, vaccines might be used in case of an impending war or in uncontaminated communities in the event of attacks elsewhere in the country.

A group of outside specialists, also commissioned by the administration but separate from the one that briefed Clinton, has listed five agents that present the most immediate menace -- anthrax, smallpox, plague, tuleremia and botulinum toxin.

"Having a national stockpile is an extremely important adjunct to any preparedness program for any city, because no city could possibly stockpile the vaccines and antibiotics necessary to deal with a bioterrorist incident," said Jerry Hauer, the director of New York City's office of emergency management and one of those who advised Clinton on the plan. "It's simply impractical and not financially feasible for many cities."

The stockpile idea is not new. Frank Young, who headed the group that briefed Clinton and formerly directed the Department of Health and Human Services' emergency preparedness office, said the department had comprehensive plans for stockpiles. But the plans took a backseat in recent years to other national health needs considered more pressing.

Some administration officials outside the White House expressed surprise at how fast the president and his National Security Council staff had moved on the initiative this month, noting with some concern that it had not gone through the customary deliberative planning process. Even members of the advisory panel cautioned that stockpiling was just a part of what needed to be a more systematic approach to bolstering U.S. preparedness, which would include greater physician education about coping with a biological attack and more drug and medical research.

Recent defense studies have warned of an increased risk of biological or chemical attack, citing the spread of information about how to produce and deliver poisonous agents and efforts by hostile states and terrorist groups to find less conventional means to challenge the United States. While attention this year has focused on Iraqi efforts to build an anthrax arsenal, as many as 10 countries are said by U.S. officials to have at least the capability to load spores of anthrax into weapons.

In response, the Pentagon has taken steps in the past year to increase funding for better protective gear, improved detectors and new vaccines. In December, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced plans to vaccinate all U.S. military personnel against anthrax, marking the first time that American troops will receive routine inoculations against a germ warfare agent.

To bolster defenses on the home front, the Pentagon is also helping to train police, fire, medical and other "first responders" in 120 cities over the next five years.

The FBI has reported only one case in the United States in which a group used biological agents -- a 1984 Oregon incident in which the Rajneeshee, a religious cult, spread salmonella bacteria over food in an effort to make voters sick and influence a county election.

Staff writer John Harris contributed to this report.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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