STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's follow up now on the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks. The Justice Department is working out whether it can officially close the case after the death of scientist Bruce Ivins, who's described as the prime suspect. Even if the case is closed, though, the government has to prepare for any future attacks or natural cotangents, for that matter.
The federal government has spent about $50 billion in recent years to improve the way that it detects and responds to threats. But progress has been limited, and some security experts think the threat is greater than it was. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: It's not very reassuring when a federal official in charge of monitoring biological threats says it's unlikely a bioterror attack could be stopped. Robert Hooks, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional panel last month that's where the government has focused on detecting whether an attack has already occurred so authorities can respond.
Sensors have been placed around major cities to monitor the air for deadly pathogens. Vaccines and antibiotics have been stockpiled. And Hooks says a new national biosurveillance center will be ready to go next month, to which another witness - William Jenkins of the Government Accountability Office -responded we will them luck, but I think it may be a little bit optimistic. Few dispute that the challenges of defending against a biological attack are huge.
Dr. GERALD EPSTEIN (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): But in some ways, the more we look at the problem, the harder it seems to get.
FESSLER: Gerald Epstein is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says much of the progress since 2001 has been in recognizing how vulnerable the country is. And Epstein says that's raised a whole host of questions, like how do you provide emergency medical treatment quickly to a lot of people?
Dr. EPSTEIN: How are you going to set up the distribution sites? Making sure you even have something to hand out. Finding out when the attack actually occurred so you can start that process. Having your political leaders have enough confidence in the decision to go ahead and order a massively disruptive response like that.
FESSLER: Right now, the answers are incomplete. Randall Larsen, head of a think tank called the Institute for Homeland Security, says he gives the federal government high grades for having truckloads of emergency medical supplies ready to send out quickly.
Mr. RANDALL LARSEN (Director, Institute for Homeland Security): But the problem is, the federal government gets an A-plus, most cities get Ds or Fs because they don't have a system to rapidly dispense it, to break down those large quantities and get it out in a rapid manner to the citizens.
FESSLER: And Epstein says that raises other concerns. Should people go to distribution sites to get vaccines or antibiotics, or is it better if medical supplies are delivered to people's homes so they can stay out of harm's way? Tara O'Toole is director the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She says progress since 2001 has been disappointingly slow.
Dr. TARA O'TOOLE (Director, Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center): And in particular, I think we miscalculated on how fragile and starved of resources the public health system truly is.
FESSLER: And she says many hospitals are better prepared than they were in 2001, but they're still not ready for mass casualties. She also notes that recent advances in the biosciences, while beneficial, also have a downside.
Dr. O'TOOLE: As we go forward, it's going to get easier and easier to engineer organisms into new kinds of biological weapons.
FESSLER: And more difficult, she says, to control who has access. O'Toole and others think for all the money that's been spent so far, a lot more is needed, and that the government has to be better organized. Again, Randall Larsen.
Mr. LARSEN: There are 26 presidentially appointed Senate-confirmed people working in biodefense in the federal government. Not one has it as a full time job, and no one is in charge.
FESSLER: In fact, the new biosurveillance center at the Homeland Security Department is supposed to improve that coordination. But GAO's William Jenkins notes that so far, the department has agreements with only six of the 11 federal agencies it plans to start coordinating with next month.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.