Are We Safe?

HHS Sec. Thompson Says Country Is Ready For Bio-Terrorism

While CBS News, along with other news organizations, have reported on the frightening possibility of massive casualties from a biological or chemical attack on this country, the White House has cautioned top officials to steer clear of saying anything about it -- until now.

The White House authorized Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson to talk with 60 Minutes Correspondent Mike Wallace about the country's preparedness for such an attack.

Thompson insists that we are safer than we'd been led to believe. "We've got to make sure that people understand that they're safe. And that we're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bio-terrorism attack," said Thompson. "I have three kids and tonight, tonight I'm telling them that they are safe. And my granddaughter who is less than two years old is safe as well."

It is safe, says Thompson, because the federal government has a plan to rush doctors and supplies to the site of any attack, and they proved the plan worked after the World Trade Center was destroyed.
Perceived Threat
In a Newsweek poll released Saturday, more than 8 out of 10 people think an attack with biological or chemical weapons is at least somewhat likely. And fewer than half think the government is ready to handle one.


"We have eight sites around America and each one of our sites we have a...package that contains 50 tons of medical supplies -- vaccines, antibiotics, gas masks and ventilators, says Thompson.

"And we are able to move those push packages, like we did in the city of New York, within hours."

Trucks arrived in New York loaded with syringes, i.v.'s and antibiotics for a variety of diseases including anthrax and the plague -- enough supplies to treat 10,000 people. And when New York didn't need them, the trucks returned to their secret staging area, to be ready for the next emergency.

"I think that shows you that if it happen, we're ready. We're ready to perform. We will be able to move in," says Thompson. "We have 7,000 doctors and medical assistance teams throughout America -- 7,000 medical personnel that are ready to go."

Thompson's plan relies on a quick federal response, recognizing that local hospitals have neither the expertise nor the equipment to deal effectively with a biological attack. A new report by the general accounting ofice underscores that local facilities would be overwhelmed.

George Washington Hospital in downtown Washington D.C. is more prepared than most. "We feel that we're as well prepared as a hospital is likely to be for these types of situations," says Craig D'Atley, a chemical and bio-hazard expert at the hospital. "But even at that, we would quickly need help from the federal government depending on how large the situation rose to."

While Thompson works to improve local preparedness, he told CBS News his quick federal response could contain any outbreak; and prevent an epidemic. But Congressman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., isn't so sure.

"Right now, we don't have the ability to respond to a massive number of patients," says Shays. "But you know the good news is that we are a lot better off than we were a few years ago."

No one in Congress knows more about the bio-threat than Shays who, as chairman of a house committee on national security, has held 18 hearings on bio-terrorism. He says he has knowledge of countries that have biological weapons.

"You can be pretty certain that Libya, and Iran and Iraq. Who knows what's in the Sudan," said Shays.

And the congressman has a dire prediction for the world: "I'm absolutely certain that terrorists, if they don't have access to biological agents now, will, and I'm absolutely certain that they'll use them."

"The expertise exists. The potential that it's being shared with the terrorists is, is almost a no-brainer," he says.

Even Thompson admits it's possible the United States could be the victim of a biological attack. But he points out such an attack would be difficult to pull off. "It's not very effective in regards to the dissemination. If it's anthrax, it'd have to be...someway through the air," he says. "If you're going to put it through one of these crop dusting planes that's been on the news lately, a lot of it is going to be dissipated throughout the air and the atmosphere."

But Shays believes the effects could be far worse. "There are a hundred different ways that you can imagine they can do it," he says. "And the one thing you're pretty certain of is they certainly won't have the restraint, and if it's a dangerous activity and they might perish with it, they're willing to perish with it."

When the FAA learned that at least one of the suicide hijackers had asked about crop dusters, they grounded all crop dusters briefly. Now they're back in the air, but are not permitted to fly over heavily populated areas.

While experts may disagree on how difficult it would be to stage a deadly biological attack, the consensus is: not difficult enough.

Thompson says he does not have a gas mask or believe that one is necessary. "How would you be able to utilize it? Are you going to have a gas mask with you 24 hours a day?''

"I don't think the American people should be scared into believing that they have to have a gas mask," Thompson says.

Thompson has alread accelerated his order for smallpox vaccine. He says that 40 million new doses will be ready next year instead of in three years.

"In the meantime, we have 15.4 million doses of vaccines, boxed and prepared to deliver if there is a smallpox breakout anywhere in the country," says Thompson.

Last January the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said this country's public health infrastructure was, "not adequate to detect and respond to a bio-terrorist event."

Thompson says the country was caught off guard by the terrorist attacks. "I think we were unprepared because we never expected anything like September 11. We never expected anything to happen that would affect the continental United States of America. But since then, we put out an alert to every - every health department in this country."

While the secretary acknowledges the government should have done more, sooner, he sys that if they ever do detect a biological attack they can quickly diagnose exactly what it is.

"We would advise on television, on radio, exactly what to do. What treatments to do," he says. "That's why it's so important, if there is anything suspicious, contact the local health department who contacts the state who contacts the CDC, and we'll have people there within hours to take care of it; set up an action plan and we will implement it."

"This has been sort of a wake-up for America. And we are moving a lot faster than we were before Sept.11. But we were prepared before Sept. 11."

While it's clear that America -- on the local level -- is still ill-equipped to deal with a biological attack, Secretary Thompson assures says he can rush enough federal help to any area to contain any attack. The general accounting office reports that many local officials remain skeptical that enough federal help would arrive in time, but for now we can only hope that Thompson is right.


©MMI CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

Download Now

More from 60 Minutes

Comments