Monday, January 30, 2006

[National] The Worst Case Scenario: Is America Ready For A Nuclear Terrorist Attack?

And, the answer from the Bush Administration, as you will read from the latest Sixty Minutes story below, is obviously, "We don't care."

(CBS) We can no longer ignore the worst-case scenario of a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city. Osama bin Laden has made it clear he wants to obtain nuclear weapons and use them against us.

The 9/11 Commission considers such an attack the No. 1 threat today, not because it’s the most likely disaster scenario, but because it would be the most devastating. The chairman of the 9/11 Commission even says he expects to see such an attack on an American city in his lifetime.

Hundreds of thousand of people could die in a nuclear attack, but hundreds of thousands of others could be saved. That’s because the Pentagon — after decades of searching — believes it has found a drug to treat radiation exposure. Why isn’t that drug available?

Correspondent Ed Bradley reports. (Story follows: Click here or on COMMENTS, below).

1 comment:

John Bartley K7AAY said...

What would happen if terrorists managed to detonate a nuclear device in a major U.S. city? Hundreds of thousands of people would suffer from acute radiation exposure. They would be at long-term risk of developing cancer, but most deaths would be from damage to the bone marrow, infections and internal bleeding.

Pentagon scientists discovered a possible treatment for radiation sickness after testing a drug made by Hollis-Eden, a small biotech company in San Diego.

"In the summer of 2001, the military came and visited us and they said, 'You know we’ve been testing your drug and we’ve been looking for a drug like this for 40 years,' " says Bob Marsella, the company’s vice president.

Was the military interested in the drug for troops?

"Yes," says Marsella. "Two weeks after 9/11, they came and visited us again and said, 'We’d like to develop this now, not only for troops but for civilians.' "

Hollis-Eden’s drug, Neumune, was not FDA-approved, but the Pentagon had been testing it on mice, dogs and monkeys, where it stopped the lethal bleeding and infections caused by radiation exposure.

The Pentagon decided the drug was in a class by itself and stated in a letter to 60 Minutes: “NEUMUNE … seems to be the most efficacious, least toxic and most comprehensive in its effects.”

"And then we started to look at the impact a nuclear bomb would have on a city and how many people would be exposed and potentially use this product," Marsella says. "And we started looking at the numbers. They were staggering. They were in the millions of doses, so we thought to ourselves, this could potentially be a very big market."

Marsella and his boss, Richard Hollis, knew it was a market with only one initial buyer: the U.S. government. They had to convince potential investors that Washington would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy their drug.

"We started circulating in Washington, and there was a lot of support for a medical countermeasure that could save human lives in the event there’s a nuclear 9/11," says Hollis.

"But we couldn’t get it funded," he says. "So we were here in Washington trying to figure out how we were going to get it done and, coincidentally, we were here for the State of the Union when the president addressed it."

"I ask you tonight to add to our future security with a major research and production effort to guard our people against bio-terrorism called Project Bioshield," President Bush said during his 2003 speech.

"Project Bioshield" provided nearly $6 billion to create a biodefense industry. The program gave drug companies a powerful incentive to come up with new drugs to be used in the event of terrorist attacks. For the first time, there would be a guaranteed market for drugs if they tested successfully. It was the assurance Hollis-Eden had been waiting for.

"So you have a partner in the Pentagon?" Bradley says.

"Yes," Hollis says.

"You’ve got a drug that you think is ahead of everyone else’s drug," says Bradley. "You’ve got a bill, Bioshield, that says we will invite you to participate and provide money for you. So that looks like everything’s coming up roses for you."

"That’s what the investors saw," Hollis says.

With the prospect of a huge market, investors put money in the company and Hollis-Eden’s stock soared from $5 to $35 a share.

"The investors looked at our data, and knew we had a very encouraging drug," says Marsella. "Nobody argued the science. It was very effective in non-human primates. So you put two and two together. You invest in the company. The government’s going to buy your drug. The investor’s going to make money. We’re going to deliver a drug to the American people that’s going to protect them, and we’re going to be better off."

Over the next three years, Hollis-Eden spent more than $100 million, with the expectation that the government would buy millions of doses.

Finally, last September, the Department of Health & Human Services surprised everyone by announcing that it would commit to purchase a radiation drug from whichever company had the best product, but only 100,000 doses.

No one expected the order to be that small.

"Our stock plummeted. We went to $5 a share. And we were shocked and surprised because we just couldn’t see how they could come to that decision," Marsella says.

No one knows where a terrorist strike might take place, but there are dozens of U.S. cities with populations large enough to be plausible targets.

Drugs would need to be stockpiled in every city, according to Lee Hamilton, Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

"A hundred thousand doses is not nearly enough," he says. "If you really had a major attack you probably would need much more than that. One estimate we made was that we’d need 10 million doses."

Who made the decision to buy 100,000 doses instead of 10 million? It was Stewart Simonson, the man who oversees Project Bioshield. Simonson is a Republican political appointee who, before running Project Bioshield, was a lawyer for Amtrak. Republicans as well as Democrats have criticized his management of the program.

"Secretary Simonson just appears to be over his head on this particular issue," says Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, who chairs the committee that oversees Project Bioshield.

Davis, who usually supports the administration, is taking the unusual step of calling in this story for Simonson’s removal from Bioshield.

He says Simonson lacks the necessary technical and scientific background, and compares him to Michael Brown, the former FEMA director who resigned after Hurricane Katrina.

"Oh, I think that we’re seeing the same kind of issues," says Davis. "Michael Brown had been before our committee prior to Katrina and exhibited the same kind of arrogance, a lack of expertise. This is a serious job at this point, and I think we need to have professionals filling it, not political appointees."

Asked if he thinks Simonson is up to the job, Davis says, "To date he’s been singularly unimpressive in this particular area."

Would he fire Simonson if it was his decision to make?

"I would transfer him out of this. I wouldn’t have him handling this program," says Davis.

Assistant Secretary Simonson has been under fire for committing nearly a billion dollars to acquire a controversial new anthrax vaccine, but he has been given credit for successfully stockpiling drugs for smallpox.

Simonson declined 60 Minutes' request for an interview, but his deputy, Dr. William Raub, was made available. Raub defended his boss.

"When he worked for Amtrak, one of his major responsibilities was terrorist threats against the rail industry. He’s brought a considerable background and expertise and he’s provided strong leadership," he said.

Why did the government decide to buy only 100,000 does to treat acute radiation syndrome?

"Well this is the place to start and we don’t see 100,000 as the end, we see 100,000 as the beginning," says Raub.

"So, if you order 100,000 and there’s a nuclear explosion … when do you get the rest of them?" asks Bradley.

"Again, we take this a step at a time. First off, we need agents that we can be sure will work," Raub replies.

"If we were told four years ago, Ed, that they were only going to buy 100,000 doses, we would have never developed this drug," says Marsella.

But HHS said the initial 100,000-dose order was just a starting point.

"They’re supposed to create a market, not a starting point," says Marsella. "If they were going to buy tanks for the military would they just buy one tank, or would they buy 100 tanks? And I think that the contractor would have a hard time spending all the money and research and not have a guarantee that they’re going to buy more than one tank."

"But they’re not saying, 'We’re only going to buy 100,000 doses.' They’re saying, 'This is where we’re going to start,'" Bradley says.

"How much more are they going to buy, Ed? Do we know that?" says Marsella. "Are they going to say they’re going to buy millions more? See, they won’t commit to that."

"The thing that must be understood here is the urgency of the problem," says Lee Hamilton. "We don’t have an unlimited amount of time here. We know that it is possible to have a nuclear attack very soon, and we must not go about business as usual."
Even though the Department of Health & Human Services hasn’t committed to buy Hollis-Eden’s drug, the Pentagon continues to endorse it.

Furthermore, the Pentagon’s chief radiologist wrote 60 Minutes that: "One of the most desirable features of Neumune" is that it "could be self-administered without physician supervision in a disaster scenario."

The drug could be in a cartridge with a needle. You could inject it in your thigh.

Marsella says having a drug that people can administer themselves was the whole idea.

"We need something that’s safe enough that we can distribute to people even in their homes," he says.

Assistant Secretary Simonson seems to be going in a different direction. He wrote a letter to Congress emphasizing that nuclear victims bleeding to death could be treated in hospitals.

Asked if he thinks hospitals would be able to handle the load of patients in such an event, Simonson’s deputy, Raub, says, "There would be hospital capacity that would be able to treat a substantial portion of that load. By no means would there be the ability to treat all of it, and therefore that’s what makes it a catastrophe."

"I talked to one of the top hematologists in this country this morning, and he said that he thought his facility, his hospital, would be able to handle maybe dozens of people, that’s it," says Bradley. "And I think if you’re looking at radiation exposure, you’re looking at more than dozens of people, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands in a place like New York or Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles."

"But no one has ever claimed a perfect response here," says Raub.

Relying on hospitals is far from a perfect solution according to the Pentagon. They wrote to 60 Minutes: "In the event of a radiation disaster the overwhelming majority of radiation victims will not have access to medical personnel."
But Raub says people can be evacuated to hospitals in the surrounding area.

"Do you imagine what it would be like evacuate New York City?" Bradley asks.

"Yes, I understand that. But, also, this is a catastrophe and I think people would do their very best on under those circumstances," Raub replies.

"Whose going to drive the buses?" asks Marsella. "If you have 450,000 people that are in a radioactively contaminated area possibly with acute radiation syndrome, how are you possibly going to deal with that many people when you just saw in Katrina that we had a hard time getting people food and water?"

Hollis-Eden’s executives believe Bioshield has been managed so badly they’ve decided to do what companies who have to deal with the government almost never do: publicly criticize the very same officials on whom their future depends.

"It is now four years after 9/11, why is this drug not a top priority to be deployed to protect the American public," Hollis said during testimony.

"I’ve personally testified five times now in front of various committees indicating the fact that if it’s not implemented properly with the right leadership that this very important piece of legislation, in my opinion, was going to fail," says Hollis.

Hollis-Eden’s executives say that if the government had done its part, their drug could have been ready for market this year. Instead, they’re now struggling to keep their company going.

"It’s just so frustrating because you’ve got nothing but duck and cover, and duct tape and plastic in the past 60 years," says Marsella. "And then you try to come out with a countermeasure that the Department of Defense is supporting. And HHS tells you, 'Well, we don’t really need it. We’re just going to put everyone in the hospital.' "

Without a government contract, their drug to treat acute radiation sickness may never see the light of day.

What happens to companies like Hollis-Eden if the government fails to recognize it, and they don’t get those incentives?

"What happens is that they fold up," says Rep. Davis.

But it’s not Hollis-Eden’s future that most concerns Davis. He says that HHS is playing a dangerous game.

"Ultimately, you’re betting that we don’t have a terrorist attack and that we’ll be able to catch up by that time. That’s the gamble," Davis says.

How far behind are we?

"I think years from where we ought to be," he says.

"What I want to see is a president of the United States and a secretary of HHS saying 'This is my No. 1 priority," says Lee Hamilton. "The No. 1 threat to the safety and security of the American people is the possibility of a nuclear attack of some kind, and it should be at the top of my priorities. That’s what I want to hear."

And he doesn't see that today?

"I do not see that," Hamilton says.