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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Biodefense Preparedness Fact Sheet

Parney Albright
Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security
April 28, 2004

Parney Albright
Hi, I'm Parney Albright, and I'm the Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security. It is a real pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to answering your questions

Warren, from Lansing writes:
Is it still important to buy a lot of duct tape?

Parney Albright
It is important for all of the American public to be prepared. The threat of terrorism ever since September 11, is clearly something we have to be concerned about as a nation. We ought to be ready for it.

There are a set of recommendations at that I recommend that the public go to, and there are a list of items that they should have stockpiled in their homes and they ought to have a kit like that at the ready.

They also should make plans with their families to make sure they know how to communicate with each other in case of such an event.

Steve, from Naperville writes:
There was an article in Time about the Chemical Biological Umbrella. Is this part of the directive?

Parney Albright
I’m not familiar with the story, but what I can talk about are a lot of the activities that the Department of Homeland Security and the federal government is taking on to better prepare for and protect the public against the threat of chemical and biological attacks.

For example, we have deployed to a very large number of our urban areas a program called BioWatch – which samples the atmosphere for the presence of pathogens in a timely enough way so that we can react to that threat and treat the affected population.

We have piloted in our subway systems means for detecting chemical agents. Obviously after the attacks in Tokyo that is something as a world we have to be prepared for.

And more importantly we announced today Homeland Security Presidential Directive Ten which basically takes those kinds of programs and many, many others and clearly assigns to the various federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security very clear accountabilities and responsibilities for creating in effect a scheme for protecting the American public against these types of threats.

Charlotte, from Binghampton writes:
What are you doing to protect our water supply?

Parney Albright
This is a good example of the type of issue which was addressed by the administration today in Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number Ten.

As I mentioned before, this is a directive which clearly assigns responsibilities to various fed agencies and assigns to the Dept of Homeland Security the responsibility for making sure that this is a well coordinated effort; that we understand the threat and that all the things that we need to do are being addressed.

For example, the EPA has the responsibility of protecting our nation’s water supply not just from terrorism but from all kinds of contaminants that might creep in due to pollutants or for other reasons.

There is a very active research program underway in the EPA’s laboratory in Cincinnati Ohio. They are looking at the kinds of sensors and testing out policies and procedures aimed at detecting in a timely way the threat to our water supply.

One of the things you have to understand about water though is, there is a lot of it. It is very, very hard to contaminate it to cause significant public health dangers. I think we’ve all heard stories in the press about terrorists about planning on putting things like cyanide in our water supply. Well, you’d have to bring truckloads of it before you would be able to put enough in before there would be any noticeable affect on the public health.

Nevertheless, we are very close to the EPA to make sure our water supply is well protected.

Brian, from Hampton, VA writes:
Should we develop the ability to quarantine sections of the country with an electromagnetic wall, to prevent bio spread in case of attack?

Parney Albright
Clearly in the event of a bio-attack , we have a lot of things to do including deployment of medical countermeasures, restricting movements of people in and out of the area depending on whether it is contagious or not.

We would work very, very closely with the local public health officials what would actually happen.

I’m unaware of any technology though that would cause an electromagnetic wall to prevent the escape of biological pathogens.

As much as we’d all like to have these types of things, we are a long, long way from having the shields that Captain Kirk, for example, can call upon to protect his people.

Terry, from Union City, Indiana writes:
With the ability of biotechnology today to modify the very genetic structure of plants and animals, shouldn't there be INCREASED rather than decreased review of Genetically Modified Organisms prior to their release into our environment?

Parney Albright
We are very concerned about genetically modified pathogens that might be for example vaccine resistant or an attempt to elude our detections abilities.

We have efforts underway within the Department of Homeland Security, HHS and the Department of Defense, that we think through carefully the kinds of genetic modifications and genetic engineering that might be done so we can get ahead of the emerging threat.

This is another example of the very large success announced today by the administration. One of the things that it calls for – it assigns the Department of Homeland Security the responsibility and accountability for conducting these kinds of studies against emerging threats and working closely with HHS and the folks at the Pentagon to get ahead of the curve on this important threat.

Tory, from Wheeling writes:
Why has it taken so long to put a bioterrorist plan together?

Parney Albright
We have had since September 11 a large number of activities underway to combat the threat of bioterrorism. The funding at HHS alone has gone up by a factor of at least 12. We have a Department of Homeland Security which received in fy 2005 over $400 million addressing solely just the bioterrorism threat.

We have EPA, USDA, all federal agencies have had many efforts underway aimed at countering the bioterrorism threat. There has been a lot of coordination at the White House level through the Homeland Security Council through the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council to integrate these efforts together.

Today’s announcement institutionalizes all of these activities. It takes a set of activities , a set of interagency plans and procedures that this administration for the first time brought together after September 11 and after the anthrax incidents. So every couple of years we are going to and end to end assessment.

We have clearly identified the various federal agencies what their responsibilities are in an unambiguous manner.

This creates an environment where we now on an enduring basis will have budgets and strategies in place to combat the threat of bioterrorism into the future and therefore take the activities that we’ve had in place that has certainly made the nation more safer than it was before and now have a directive in place and a capability that this momentum continues into the future.

Mike, from New Hampshire writes:
There was an article on the new initiative this morning where it quoted someone from the Center for Biosecurity at the Pittsburgh Medical Center. The person quoted said that there needs tobe a strong emphasis on improving the capacity to respond to epidemics. Is there?

Parney Albright
Absolutely. This country is far, far better off today than it was three or four years ago and certainly prior to September 11 in our ability to respond to epidemics.

We have a national strategic stockpile of pharmaceuticals that we could deploy in the event of an epidemic or some public health emergency.

We’ve gone from 8 fifty ton pushpacks to 12 since then. We’ve mass trained our public health community in their ability to respond to this type of event. Our colleagues in HHS have taken their role extraordinarily seriously. We have significant research development efforts to develop new vaccines and medical countermeasures to respond to such an epidemic.

We have scenarios in place with which we plan so we can be assured that all the logistics of the structure that you need to have to respond to such a threat can occur.

So absolutely, we are far, far better to respond to an epidemic than we were even a short time ago.

peter, from dewey beach writes:
the new york times said there will be a common surveillance system to collect and analyze information about bioterrorist attacks, but it doesn't really elaborate. can you

Parney Albright
The surveillance system is first comprised of a couple things.

One is the massive expansion of the program called BioWatch which is a set of environmental samplers which we have in most of our urban areas that we deployed soon after September 11 to address the risk of biopathogens like an anthrax attack for example.

So we have these samplers in place and they would detect an anthrax attack, for example, in a way timely enough for us to be able to treat the affected population. And that is a very important capability in the biosurveillance initiative that the President announced in his fy2005 budget. Biowatch is an important part of that.

But another very important part of that is medical surveillance. That is the capacity to collect data from hospital emergency rooms, from clinical laboratories – not just public hospitals but also at places like Department of Defense clinics, VA hospitals, veterinary clinics – for example the first sign that we had a West Nile problem came from people correlating the presence of dead crows with people that had symptoms. So we’d be looking at veterinary signs.

Food poisoning centers….all this data will come together and will be coupled with threat information that we get associated with intelligence information that we also get from the intelligence community and also the environmental sampling capability that I mentioned earlier. And it will all be brought together to look for signs of a bioterrorist attack.

A very important part that you should come away with is that all of this has been put in place and funded to respond to bioterrorism events, it clearly has an enormous impact on our ability in our public health posture.

So for example, if I’m monitoring the sales of over the counter drugs like Tylenol and aspirin at Wal Mart for example, and if I’m also monitoring what’s going on in emergency rooms and public health clinics, I’m going to not only detect bioterrorist attacks but I’m going to be seeing the signs of the next flu epidemics. And I’m going to see the signs of pediatric viruses that go through school communities once in awhile. And all of the other things that affect our nation’s public health – not just bioterrorism.

We all hope that we won’t see a bioterrorist attack again, but nevertheless, putting this system in place doesn’t just make us safer but it makes us a lot healthier too and we should remember that.

Jeff, from Daily Times Leader, West Point, Miss. writes:
Will the next round of Homeland Security grant money be geared more towards surveillance equipment to combat bioterrorism as opposed to equipment for first responders? How will the efforts to protect local water supplies be improved?

Parney Albright
The grant money that the Homeland Security Department sends out is actually entirely for the first responder public safety community for state and local governments to spend to prepare themselves for bioterrorism.

Clearly some of that money will go for personal protective equipment so they can enter a zone where a chemical attack might have occurred. Some of that money will go detection equipment so that if they get suspicious white powder the local public health authorities can make the determination of whether it is a real threat or not before calling up the feds.

Virtually all the money to combat bioterrorism will not through Homeland Security grant money but federal investment that would be made on the national scale.

The grant money is all about first responder and public safety officials.

And the grant money that comes from HHS is all about the public health folks – local hospitals, state and local activities.

As for your second question, under the new directive the EPA has the clear responsibility for dealing with the water supply. At DHS, there are a number of research development efforts in improving sensor technology for example to help protect the water supply but we will rely on EPA to coordinate those activities with us.

I should say however, that I believe our local water supplies are very safe.

Rodney, from Flushing writes:
Why the focus on bioterrorism today?

Parney Albright
Well, the Department of Homeland Security and this administration is focused on a wide variety of threats. We are talking about bioterrorism today because the issues surrounding bioterrorism have unique issues attached to them that cut across a number of government agencies. Obviously the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense , Department of Agriculture, EPA and my agency Department of Homeland Security – all have very serious responsibilities and accountabilities that the President assigned to us in better preparing the country and making it safer to respond to a threat from bioterrorism.

That’s not the only threat we worry about. We worry about lots of things. Obviously we are being very proactive our aviation industry. WE have deployed massive amounts of screening and detection equipment at our airports. We have deployed radiation detection to our borders. We have sent millions of dollars to state and local officials to prepare our first responders better in their ability to respond to a wide variety of issues not just public health threats although that is part of it.

We are talking about bioterrorism today because the administration has taken a major step forward in assuring that the fairly substantial activities that we have had underway in the last two years in biodefense – and by the way these are new activities – and making sure these activities endure and are continued and constantly refined in the future.

Parney Albright
Thanks for having me on Ask the White House today. I enjoyed taking your questions.

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