Presidential candidates answers about plans to combat bioterrorism

Excerpt from Nature magazine article: US election: Questioning the candidates:

Barack Obama accepted Nature’s invitation to answer 18 science-related questions in writing; John McCain’s campaign declined. Here are Obama’s answers to additional questions that did not appear in our print magazine. Wherever possible, Nature has noted what McCain has said at other times on these topics.

What would you do that would make America less vulnerable to bioterrorism in 2012 than it is today?

Obama: It’s time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bioterror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon ā€” whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply ā€” could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy. Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law-enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen US intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the US government’s bioforensics programme for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.

And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public-health system with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technologies to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency. I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the United States has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.

We also have to expand local and state programmes to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government’s partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programmes and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation that would have provided funding for programmes in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country. I will build on America’s unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the US biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.

McCain, in response to a ScienceDebate2008 question about a potential H5N1 avian influenza epidemic, outlined a four-part strategy to deal with pandemics or deliberate biological attacks; key aspects are preparedness, communication, surveillance/detection and response/containment. In terms of specifics, he called for more research into next-generation automated sensors to detect biological agents and real-time information sharing with first responders.

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