White House Pushes Back on Bioterror Report; Calls It 'Absurd' and Bashes the Drug Industry

The Obama White House is pushing back against a federal panel's "report card" giving it an F for failing to prepare the country's defenses against a bioterror attack.

"We think it's absurd," said a White House official, who didn't want to be publicly identified criticizing the commission in public. "We think we've done a lot." And while the official says the timing is purely a coincidence, Obama plans to address the issue in the State of the Union tomorrow night.

He will announce an initiative to develop "rapid, reliable, and affordable production" medical vaccines and other antidotes to bioweapons and other public health emergencies such as last year's H1N1 threat, the official said.

The White House reaction came on a day that the threat that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might launch a biological attack is getting new attention. A new report by a former CIA official, released by a center at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, warned that Al Qaeda has been far more sophisticated in its efforts to develop biological weapons than is commonly known. At the same time, a congressionally appointed commission sharply criticized the Obama administration and Congress for its failure to develop a plan to cope with a biological attack, such as the release of anthrax on the New York City subway system. "Anybody who studies this will tell you that we are basically nowhere on biopreparation," the panel's co-chair, former Republican senator Jim Talent, said at a news conference. (Former Democratic senator Bob Graham is the other co-chair of the panel.)

The commission's top officials—who have been warning about the threat of bioterrorism for more than a year—met with John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, several months ago to express their concerns that the administration wasn't being aggressive enough on the issue. "We're working on it," Brennan told them, according to Randell Larsen, the panel's executive director.

The White House is not pleased that the panel has chosen to bash it, and used the occasion to bash the pharmaceutical industry instead.

"Since coming to office the Obama administration has undertaken a comprehensive review of our national preparedness policy," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro in an e-mail to Declassified.

"Despite years of effort and millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, the U.S. government's approach to the development and procurement of medical 'countermeasures' against emerging pandemics, certain endemic diseases, and biological weapons and other WMD threats has not produced the results we demand," he added. "Our results reflect in part the state of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. As a nation, we are spending more time and money in research and development of pharmaceuticals, but fewer licensed products are emerging from the pipeline.

"Recognizing this need, tomorrow during the State of the Union, the President will launch an initiative aimed at responding faster and more effectively to public health threats, including bioterrorism," he said.