WASHINGTON - As the administration asked Congress for an additional $1.5 billion to fight bioterrorism, President Bush sought to reassure jittery Americans yesterday that the government was working around the clock to keep them safe and to thwart future terrorist attacks.
"We're on the lookout," Bush said in parting remarks as he headed to an economic summit in Shanghai, his first trip abroad since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"We will do whatever it takes to protect our country, to protect the good families. And we will do whatever it takes to punish those who've attacked us."
Speaking to business leaders in Sacramento, Calif., Bush said his new Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, is working to "expose and frustrate" the plans of terrorists and to adopt measures to increase airline security.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told a Senate committee that the administration wants to spend an additional $1.5 billion, more than six times the amount originally budgeted for this year, for emergency measures aimed at fighting bioterrorism.
Much of the money would be used to build a national stockpile of drugs to treat anthrax and other biological and chemical warfare agents. More than $500 million would go to accelerate efforts to develop a greatly expanded supply of smallpox vaccine.
Thompson told senators that HHS was prepared to respond to a bioterrorist attack. But, he added, "there is more that we must do to strengthen our ability to respond. We need to get stronger."
He said money was needed to improve coordination among local, state and federal officials, to train health care and emergency workers and to strengthen food inspection. Funds would also be used to outfit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta with rapid-response and specialty labs and to hire more epidemiologists.
Because of the public's fear of anthrax, Thompson said, he wanted to amass enough antibiotics to treat 12 million people for anthrax for 60 days. The current stockpile would be sufficient to treat 2 million.
He said the Food and Drug Administration had approved the use of penicillin and doxycycline, both readily available, for treating anthrax. These antibiotics could be used in addition to the more expensive drug Cipro, an antibiotic being hoarded in recent days by a nervous public.
"Let me again stress that there is no need for anyone to stockpile any drugs," Thompson said. "We have the drugs that we need, and they will be available whenever and wherever they are needed."
Thompson said in an NBC interview that he has asked Bayer, the German drug manufacturer that holds the patent for Cipro, to produce at least 200 million additional pills over the next three months, some of which will be purchased for the national stockpile.
He said he had also talked to the company's executives about ignoring their patent and allowing other companies to produce Cipro, a course allowed by law when the U.S. government needs a certain patented drug.
Thus far, the only biological scares have come from the anthrax bacteria, which is highly treatable with antibiotics if detected early. Thompson said the administration was also focused on smallpox, a less likely but far more dangerous threat.
The HHS secretary said the government was working with several drug companies and felt confident they could develop 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine by late next year, a goal he has increased in the last few weeks from an earlier request of 40 million.
The U.S. government has about 15.4 million doses of smallpox vaccine that could be stretched to 77 million if it is diluted five-fold. Tests have suggested that such a weaker dose is 95 percent effective, he said.
The incubation period for smallpox is about 12 days, but a dose of the vaccine given within the first five days of exposure can effectively stop the disease.
Routine vaccination against smallpox ended in the United States in 1972, several years before the disease was eradicated worldwide. However, the bacteria still exist in some laboratories.
In a TV interview Tuesday, Ridge said the government would consider the question of resuming inoculation of children against smallpox "as soon as we get the supply."
"I think you need to deal with eventualities," Ridge said, when asked if mass vaccination was a possibility. "One of the challenges within this job is to take a look at all the threats that are there and then assess whether or not those threats are real or imminent."
Thompson said yesterday that the administration might allow voluntary vaccination after the 300 million doses were acquired but would probably not require immunization, because side effects in the past included death in one of every million cases.
Ridge, who has been homeland security coordinator for a week and a half, has been less visible than other administration officials in responding to the anthrax scare. But Thompson defended Ridge's effectiveness before senators who questioned whether the former governor had any real power.
Thompson said in recent meetings Ridge has delegated responsibility to agency and department heads and improved the communication among various intelligence and public health agencies.
"I think he has the power," Thompson said. "Just the fact that the president says that he's going to be the coordinator. I can't imagine any Cabinet officer would be dumb enough to challenge that."
In his appearance before the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Thompson said the government planned to expand from eight to 12 its arsenal of "push packs," the 50-ton caches of medical supplies that have been placed strategically around the country and can be dispatched within 12 hours to the site of an outbreak.
To help educate health officials about bioterrorism, Thompson and CDC officials plan to hold a video conference and Webcast today with representatives from the American Medical Association and American Hospital Association to answer questions from physicians, nurses and other health professionals about how to identify and treat anthrax.
On Friday, the HHS secretary will address the nation's governors, also by teleconference, on ways to improve their response to bioterrorism. Next week, he will speak to mayors on the same subject.
In addition, Thompson said, the CDC has set up a round-the-clock hotline for local public health officials that is being heavily used.