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Friday, February 18, 2011

Federal Efforts to Address the Threat of Bioterrorism: Selected Issues and Options for Congress

Frank Gottron
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Dana A. Shea
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Reports by congressional commissions, the mention of bioterrorism in President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, and issuance of executive orders have increased congressional attention to the threat of bioterrorism. Federal efforts to combat the threat of bioterrorism predate the anthrax attacks of 2001 but have significantly increased since then. The U.S. government has developed these efforts as part of and in parallel with other defenses against conventional terrorism. Continued attempts by terrorist groups to launch attacks targeted at U.S. citizens have increased concerns that federal counterterrorism activities insufficiently address the threat.

Key questions face congressional policymakers: How adequately do the efforts already under way address the threat of bioterrorism? Have the federal investments to date met the expectations of Congress and other stakeholders? Should Congress alter, augment, or terminate these existing programs in the current environment of fiscal challenge? What is the appropriate federal role in response to the threat of bioterrorism, and what mechanisms are most appropriate for involving other stakeholders, including state and local jurisdictions, industry, and others?

Several strategy and planning documents direct the federal government’s biodefense efforts. Many different agencies have a role. These agencies have implemented numerous disparate actions and programs in their statutory areas to address the threat.

Despite these efforts, congressional commissions, nongovernmental organizations, industry representatives, and other experts have highlighted weaknesses or flaws in the federal government’s biodefense activities. Reports by congressional commissions have stated that the federal government could significantly improve its efforts to address the bioterrorism threat.

Congressional oversight of bioterrorism crosses the jurisdiction of many congressional committees. As a result, congressional oversight is often issue-based. Because of the diversity of federal biodefense efforts, this report does not provide a complete view of the federal bioterrorism effort. Instead, this report focuses on four areas under congressional consideration deemed critical to the success of the biodefense enterprise: strategic planning; risk assessment; surveillance; and the development, procurement, and distribution of medical countermeasures.

Congress, through authorizing and appropriations legislation and oversight activities, continues to influence the federal response to the bioterrorism threat. Congressional policymakers may face many difficult choices about the priority of maintaining, shrinking, or expanding existing programs or creating new programs to address identified deficiencies. Augmenting or creating programs may result in additional costs in a time of fiscal challenges. Maintaining or shrinking programs may pose unacceptable risks, given the potential for significant casualties and economic effects from a large-scale bioterror attack.

Date of Report: February 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R41123
Price: $29.95

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