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Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - On its face, it's just another Washington dispute about money. But a move by House Democrats to strip $2 billion to fight bioterrorism and pandemic flu from reserve funds - without objection from President Barack Obama - has infuriated some of the country's foremost bioterrorism experts.

It's a symbol, they say, of how the Obama White House is failing to address the threat posed by a potential biological attack, which they say could kill 400,000 Americans and do $2 trillion in economic damage. The probability of such an event is low, bioterrorism specialists acknowledge, but they say the failure to plan for it reflects the same lack of imagination that presaged the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"I don't think anybody who understands the urgency of bio-preparedness is happy with where we are right now," said Jeff Runge, who was chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2008.

The $2 billion reduction in bioterrorism prevention and pandemic funds came in a House appropriations bill that passed July 2. Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., added $10 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, and under budget rules he needed to find cuts elsewhere.

Among other things, he required the secretary of Health and Human Services to cut $2 billion from funds reserved for pandemic flu or bioterrorism drugs. On the block is Project BioShield, a pot of money designed to buy drugs and vaccines to save lives in the event of a biological attack. The money was set aside as a guarantee to private companies that if they produced the medicines, government funds would be available to buy them.

The proposed cut is "an extremely negative development in our overall efforts to prepare not only for bioterrorism but for other biological events from nature," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

Obama named Graham to co-chair panels on the oil spill and the financial crisis. He also co-chaired the bipartisan Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which in January gave the federal government a grade of F for its bioterrorism preparation. There have been few improvements since, he said.

If terrorists attacked a city with anthrax or some other biological agent today, "I think there would be tens if not hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily killed," Graham said. "We know what to do to reduce the impact of a biological attack, but thus far we have been unwilling to implement those steps."

Graham said he would lobby the White House to restore the funds.

Nine years after envelopes of powdered anthrax killed five people and shut down the U.S. Capitol, the United States remains poorly equipped to distribute antibiotics in time to prevent mass deaths in the event of a large dispersal of the deadly pathogen, said Robert Kadlec, a doctor and former Air Force special operations officer who was President George W. Bush's bioterrorism adviser. Obama has not named his successor.

"It is incomprehensible to think that an administration and a Congress that is fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen - some of whom are trying to obtain and use biological weapons against the U.S. - would eliminate monies dedicated to make us better prepared," Kadlec said.

The BioShield fund was set up in 2004 with $5.6 billion to be spent over 10 years. So far, $2 billion has been spent.