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Congress is responding to threat of bioterrorism

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Since the horrific events of Sept. 11, the United States has been engaged in a war on terrorists who threaten our way of life. Unfortunately, the weapons of terrorism are not limited to hijacked airplanes and bombs, but also include biological agents.

I share the concerns of many Americans who are worried about possible bioterrorism attacks such as anthrax exposure and outbreaks of smallpox. Anthrax exposure through the postal system has heightened these concerns. To ensure the safety of the mail, the U.S. Postal Service has 1,900 inspectors who are working night and day to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice. These inspectors also are gathering significant information that can help us trace the origins of this attack.

The U.S. Postal Service is adopting and immediately deploying new technology that will fight anthrax that could move through the mail. In addition, the Postal Service has mailed postcards to every address in the nation explaining how to identify and isolate suspicious mail. Congress will continue working closely with officials from the U.S. Postal Service to ensure that necessary precautions are taken to protect the American people and our postal system.

An outbreak of smallpox is another potential threat. The United States maintains national smallpox vaccine stocks sufficient to immunize 6- to 7-million people. Efforts are being undertaken to expand this reserve so that more Americans can be protected from the threat of smallpox.

The House of Representatives is working to deter and prevent bioterrorism. As chairman of the Health Subcommittee, I am carefully reviewing bioterrorism threats and the United States' response to biological weapons. Fortunately, cases of anthrax exposure can be treated and infection can be prevented through antibiotics. Great quantities of antibiotics for anthrax and smallpox vaccines are being stockpiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the event of additional biological attacks.

I am confident that the United States will be able to respond to current threats and prevent future bioterrorist attacks. I want to assure the public that your representatives in Washington have already taken steps to strengthen many of our nation's antiterrorism laws.

It may surprise many people to learn that there are no federal laws or regulations governing who may possess deadly biological agents and under what conditions they may possess them and for what purposes. Anyone, including convicted felons or foreign nationals from terrorist-sponsoring states, can lawfully possess anthrax or other dangerous bacteria or viruses.

This must be changed. The House of Representatives approved legislation, crafted by my Energy and Commerce Committee, to close some of these loopholes to provide better information on lawful researchers who are using select chemical and biological agents. The Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001 also makes it easier for the U.S. government to prosecute would-be terrorists who possess dangerous agents that could be used as a weapon. Current law requires that the government demonstrate a specific intent to use the agent as a weapon. The legislation unanimously approved by the House makes the unregistered possession of dangerous chemical and biological agents a federal felony, and increases the current penalty for making an unauthorized transfer of such agents from a federal misdemeanor to a felony.

This bill also makes it a federal crime to knowingly possess, use or exercise control over one of these deadly agents in a manner that constitutes a reckless disregard of the public health and safety, with increased penalties should actual harm occur from such contact.

The Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001 is just the first step in Congress' response to bioterrorism. I anticipate that additional legislation will be considered in the remainder of the 107th Congress. As chairman of the Health Subcommittee, I will be working with my congressional colleagues and the Bush administration to ensure the American people are protected.

This is a time for all of us to pull together as Americans. As we hear about the heroic acts of citizens, we realize that each one of us can make a difference. I personally thank and honor those who are on the front lines fighting this war. The United States is a great country, and we are all blessed to enjoy our freedoms.

_ U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis is a Republican from Tarpon Springs.