'Be Prepared'

The anthrax attacks of 2001 propelled Tommy Thompson into the frontlines of the war against terror. In the 15 months since the deadly bacteria infiltrated America's postal system, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services has been ramping up his department in preparation for another biological or chemical assault against the nation.

Thompson was in Switzerland this week to meet with some of his counterparts from other countries for talks on bioterror and other health issues. One of several top American government members--including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft--in Davos for the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of political and business leaders, Thompson also addressed a dinner session about how ordinary citizens should conduct their lives in an era of fear.

NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz spoke to Thompson in the Swiss resort town about America's preparation against bioweapons--and why he believes such an attack is inevitable "someplace" in the world. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Fifteen months after they began, the anthrax attacks on the United States are still unsolved. Where do investigations stand now?

Tommy Thompson: That's in the hands of the FBI. The FBI is doing a diligent study of all of the evidence and is exploring leads. But at this point in time they have not been able to build a case against an individual or individuals. They're working hard at it.

You met with several health ministers from G-20 countries here on Sunday. How did those talks go?

We had a wonderful meeting. We also had a lot of heads of companies that deal with health issues--pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment, HMOs--to discuss the future of health care in the world. We had a very lengthy discussion on HIV-AIDS [and] a good discussion on the aging population of the world and the lack of resources to take care of them. We ended up by having a good long discussion on bioterrorism.

Concerns about bioterror must be even greater following the discovery that the deadly poison ricin was being made in London.

And in France and in Spain. [It] really points out that these terrorists are willing to hit any country in the world. Every country has got to recognize that and, as I mentioned to the G-20 ministers, we have to become better prepared because it's inevitable that some time in the future one of our countries is going to be hit by some kind of bioterrorist, chemical [or] radiological attack.

How worried are you that America will be the target of such an attack?

I'm very concerned.

What are you doing to prevent it?

A great deal. We've purchased enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate every man, woman and child in America and then some. We have expended $1.1 billion to rebuild and expand [our] local, state and national public health system and [we are] directing all our states to develop comprehensive plans with their local units of government.

We're hooking up all the health departments with a health network to improve communications. We're doing the same thing with the laboratories, so they can improve their security and expand their services. [If] a specimen comes in we can send it immediately to a state laboratory and a corresponding sample to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] in Atlanta so we can corroborate findings very quickly. We've got epidemiologists on alert in Atlanta that we can fly to any community as soon as something peculiar comes to the forefront.

We [also] have 600 tons of medical supplies and equipment strategically located in 12 different locations so that we can move 50 tons of antibodies and antibiotics and therapies to any city in America within seven hours. We're vaccinating some of our health workers and first responders. After Congress approves the fiscal year 2003 budget, we will be sending out an additional 1.5 billion dollars to states and local units of government to fill in the necessary pieces to get us prepared.

Plus we're expending approximately $1 billion toward the research and manufacture of new vaccines and new antibiotics and therapies for a lot of the bioterrorist agents such as smallpox, anthrax, hemorrhagic fever viruses, botulism and [bubonic] plague. We are also building up coalitions with Mexico, Canada, England, Germany, France, Italy and Japan to develop sharing [programs].

You have no doubt that an attack is inevitable?

I think that there's going to be an attack someplace.

What will be the most likely agent?

I'm most worried about botulitum toxins [some of the world's most toxic compounds].

The WEF invited you to lead a dinner discussion entitled "An Era of Fear." What message do you want participants to take home from your address?

I want to tell people that they should be prepared, that they should not let fear dictate their decisions in life. They should be able to make the decisions necessary to purchase things that they want to purchase, to buy a house or a car, to go on a vacation, to spend time with their children, to expand their business if they want to. They should be alert, but they should not let fear determine their actions.

What's your view on the anti-American feelings that have been expressed here throughout the meeting?

I think [some of that] comes from countries that feel they have not been listened to, and as a result of that it encourages them to have an anti-American feeling. I don't think it's justified. I think we have to do a better job of getting out the facts, and I think the president's trying to do that.