updated 1/26/2010 2:42:48 PM ET 2010-01-26T19:42:48

President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to unveil a new plan for a quicker response to bioterrorism threats and attacks, the White House said Tuesday.

The announcement came just hours after the release of a report critical of the government's ability to prepare and respond to bioterrorist attacks.

Obama will be asking government leaders to rethink their plans for medical countermeasures so that quick, reliable and affordable antidotes will be available during any public health emergency, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. This would be a redesign of the medical antidote system, he said.

Earlier Tuesday, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation gave the Obama administration a failing grade for its efforts to prepare for and respond to a biological attack.

In 2008, the WMD was also critical of the government's ability to prepare and respond to a biological attack. The government did respond to that and developed a plan to prevent the illegal spread of biological weapons, such as anthrax. Obama rolled out that plan in November.

A month later, Obama signed an order to create a system so that the federal government could rapidly distribute medical countermeasures to supplement state and local responses after a biological attack, Shapiro said. The system relies partly on the U.S. Postal Service's ability to reach every American household.

Quicker drug distribution
Obama new plan will mean that better and cheaper drugs will be distributed more quickly, he said.

Despite these efforts, the WMD commission said the Obama administration is not addressing urgent threats, including bioterrorism.

"Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat," said former Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the commission. "But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve, when we know al-Qaida is interested in bioweapons."

Retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, the commission's executive director, said the government was poorly prepared for the swine flu epidemic in 2009, suggesting that the country is not positioned to respond to something more serious. He pointed to the early shortage of H1N1 vaccine despite a six-month warning from health officials that the disease would be potentially deadly.

The shortage, however, was largely due to private manufacturing problems that the government hopes to alleviate in the future with a different process to make flu vaccine. The government's work to identify the new flu virus and create seed stock for a vaccine quickly has been praised.

No one in the Obama administration has taken the lead for protecting the country against bioterrorism, Larsen said.

"Especially troubling is the lack of priority given to the development of medical countermeasures — the vaccines and medicines that would be required to mitigate the consequences of an attack," the report said.

Call for oversight of labs
The report recommended five steps the government should take to deal with the threat of bioterrorism:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the domestic program to secure dangerous pathogens.
  • Develop a national strategy for advancing the ability to conduct forensic analyses of bioterror attacks.
  • Tighten government oversight of laboratories that deal with dangerous pathogens.
  • Promote a culture of security awareness among scientists.
  • Enhance the country's rapid response plan to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.

The commission was formed by Congress to evaluate the government's readiness for a terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction. Its report follows a study released Monday that warned that al-Qaida is still pursuing technology to conduct a biological, chemical or even nuclear attack against the United States.

That study, released by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said al-Qaida's "top WMD priority has been to acquire nuclear and strategic biological weapons."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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