WASHINGTON – The government should start preparing for where bioterror might strike next, and that means strengthening the safety of the nation's food supply, Sen. Bill Frist says.
"My responsibility is to prevent the next thing," Frist, a surgeon before he was senator, said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
As such, Frist, R-Tenn., pledged to fight for increased "vigilance in areas that touch our lives" such as protecting food from contamination.
Frist's comments came as the nation's casualty toll reached six cases of confirmed inhalation anthrax, including the deaths of two postal workers in Washington and a tabloid photo editor in Florida. Most apparently are linked to an anthrax-laced letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that passed through mail facilities from Trenton N.J., to Capitol Hill.
In the time since the Daschle letter was discovered, Frist has been a key manager of Capitol Hill's anthrax scare, explaining the public health consequences to worried lawmakers and members of the public.
He has offered a bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to provide $1.4 billion for bioterrorism preparedness. Most of the funds would help local and state officials upgrade computers, plan for disasters, increase staffing, train workers and improve health laboratories.
President Bush has proposed $1.5 billion, the bulk of which would go to federal emergency preparedness. The administration proposal includes money to increase stockpiles of antibiotics and other medical supplies and to buy 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine.
Frist said he would like to see legislation that includes components of the president's plan and deals with food safety worries.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the General Accounting Office -- Congress' investigative arm -- reported that the nation's food supply is vulnerable to terrorist attack because of the government's fragmented inspection system.
U.S. food inspection programs are divided between the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, responsible for safeguarding nearly all foods other than meat and poultry, has 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants. USDA has 10 times as many inspectors for just 6,000 facilities.
The GAO has pressed Congress for years to consolidate inspection programs into one agency.
Frist also defended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under fire since the deaths of the postal workers. Officials there had no way to predict anthrax spores could swirl through postal offices and sicken people, he said. "It's uncharted ground.
"I didn't become alarmed until I heard about this," Frist said, referring to the presence of anthrax in postal facilities.
Those anthrax spores were so small and finely milled that they suggest "more than a casual scientist" is behind the mail-borne attacks. "The aerosolization of this product, of the weapon itself, had never been done before to the degree that it has," he said.
Frist predicted "there will be more illness" and that regular masks provide no protection from such small bacteria. He said special battery-operated masks -- similar to those worn by certain workers clearing the destroyed World Trade Center in New York -- are the only reliable kind, but are hard to wear.
"The purpose of terrorists is really to take our infrastructure that we take for granted, turn it on end and jam it in our face," Frist said.
• Said vaccinating certain postal workers against anthrax isn't practical. Some protection arises within six weeks, but full protection takes 18 months. Still, the vaccine's one manufacturer, Michigan-based Bioport, has "a whole lot" of shots available once the Food and Drug Administration approves their sale.
• Predicted the nation won't reinstitute routine smallpox vaccinations, even though the Bush administration is buying 300 million doses to have on hand because of the "tiny risk" of a smallpox attack. Inoculating everyone would result in an estimated 400 deaths from vaccine side effects, he said.