September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Secretary Thompson Remaks to the Biotech CEO Conference; October 7, 2001

PLACE: Biotech CEO Conference, Laguna Niguel, California
DATE: Oct. 7, 2001

The Biotech Industry's Role in Fighting Bioterrism


Good evening. It's wonderful being with you, and I so appreciate the opportunity of speaking to the men and women who are so vital to America's economic success.

It is great to come all the way to a conference in southern California to find a couple of success stories from my home state hard at work. When my friends Steve Burrill and Roger Wyse invite me to be the keynote speaker, I knew the event would be high quality. After all, these guys are from Wisconsin.

I'm just glad to see all of you too, representing so many different backgrounds, and so many American experiences.

Once again, the American motto rings true: Epluribus unum - "Out of many, one." Our country has pulled together with such a renewed sense of incredible unity and patriotism. You can feel in the American people an enduring commitment to the principles of freedom, justice and honor that have built our great country.

As for the terrorists, they can run in fear . but they will hide in vain. The President is utterly resolute and I know you share with me my pride in his leadership at this critical time.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and I were honored to stand next to President Bush last Thursday, when he declared, "we'll be tough and resolute as we unite, to make sure freedom stands, to rout out evil, to say to our children and grandchildren, we were bold enough to act, without tiring, so that you can live in a great land and in a peaceful world."

By your attendance here, you have reaffirmed your belief in the strength not just of the biotech industry and the U.S. economy, but also of this great and wonderful land.

We're moving forward - first with the $40 billion in tax relief now working its way through the economy. Another $40 billion has already been earmarked for emergency disaster spending. And this week, the President called for up to $75 million in further economic stimulus, a proposal drawing wide support.

So, we're confident in the enduring strength of the American economy. And let me thank you, on behalf of President Bush, for your unswerving dedication to higher growth and a stronger future for America.

Steve, thank you for founding and continuing to organize this conference. This meeting has been a long-standing priority for me. The Bush administration puts a major emphasis on scientific research and on working with the biotech community. In this audience are the men and women who will help bring research into the market, creating new drugs and treatments . and saving lives in the process.

Your discoveries and developments continue to inject billions of dollars into our nation's economy, even if there have been some rocky months on Wall Street for you. As Steve observed earlier this month, "if you look at the industry's 30-year history, biotech has survived more than one tough market."

The September 11 terrorist attacks have naturally magnified your industry's prominence.

Wall Street analysts have told me personally that equity markets are looking favorably on the pharmaceutical and for-profit hospital stocks because of they are being considered "defense stocks."

Bioterrorism is a serious focus for the media and other experts - in some cases accompanied by wild scenarios and speculation.

We have to avoid overstatement. Unreasonable fear can never be the basis for effective public policy.

But at the same time, we're mindful of the legitimate concerns the American people have about biological and chemical terrorism. Let me emphasize: we have prepared, and prepared well, for bioterrorism attacks. I cannot go into all the particulars, but our level of readiness is far better than some reports would have you believe.

One of the first things I did as secretary was to request and receive a briefing on bioterrorism. As governor of Wisconsin, we took steps to prepare and respond, and I wanted to be certain that HHS was well equipped to handle any attacks.

To lead the department's efforts I brought in an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC in Atlanta - and personally charged him to build an agency-wide team. Dr. Scott Lillibridge has done an excellent job of doing just that.

The good news is that in the aftermath of September 11, we know our response teams can move quickly and effectively anywhere in the country. Like any other endeavor, we can always improve, but we are prepared.

HHS had a standing mission that called on us to be able to transfer medicines, masks and respirators to any spot in the United States within 12 hours.

On September 11, we delivered. We transported what we call a "push pack" - 50 tons of medicines and supplies - to New York within seven hours after being notified.

We brought five medical teams by helicopters to New York City by five o'clock that day. We had four mortuary teams up there the next day. Hundreds of doctors and other medical personnel responded quickly and comprehensively.

We were able to bring 50,000 doses of tetanus vaccine to the city of New York by five o'clock on September 11th. Our vendor supply system provided 10,000 masks by the end of the afternoon.

Within minutes after the first plane went into the tower, I also put on notice our "action alert network" at the CDC. Every state health department was instructed to be on the lookout for anything suspect, and to report that information immediately to the CDC. We would have learned of any possible outbreaks no matter where they happened: California, New York, Florida or Alaska. That increased awareness continues, which is one of the reasons the case of anthrax was spotted so quickly in Florida.

You might not have read about these preparations, but they represent the efforts of thousands of people, months and years of hard work, and the breadth and capacity of a smoothly functioning federal government.

Obviously, we cannot rest. We have to take that aggressive "get-it-done" attitude and rev it up even more - especially when we're working with you. The biotech industry is an essential component in our national preparations against bioterrorism.

Already some activists are declaring that the possibility of bioterrorism means we should get tougher on private-sector labs in the United States. Who knows what kinds of dangers are being cooked up in these laboratories, these fear-mongers ask. We need more controls, more regulations, they say.

That's exactly wrong. Excessive regulation stifles innovation and discourages the very breakthroughs we need. The biotech industry must play a major role in guarding against bioterrorism. Your scientists can help make the breakthroughs to protect our citizens from the evils of terrorism.

That being said, I do want to encourage all of you individually and as an industry to review you own security procedures.

Moving forward, we want to be your partners, not an obstacle. Let me give you an example of how the administration is approaching your industry in this new, post- September environment.

CDC had about 15 million doses of the smallpox vaccine on hand, and we recognized that simply wasn't enough to treat any mass outbreak. So we negotiated a contract through Acambis, the U.K.-company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to produce 40 million more doses using the latest technology based on cultured cell lines. Originally, the vaccines were expected to be available by 2004.

In light of recent, terrible events, waiting that long was simply not an option. We couldn't sit around and say, "Well, we're working on it."

So I called in everyone involved in the process to see how we could speed up production. We sat down in a room - the President of Acambis, my deputy, and the top people from FDA, CDC and NIH. And I asked every one of them: "What do we have to do to get this done?"

If the problem was a limited supply of production vats, we'd look for more and figure out how to make them to Acambis. NIH was told to get ready for early testing, period.

Usually, folks come out of this sort of meeting, and say, let's run it by the HHS general counsel next week. Not this time. This time the general counsel was sitting right in the same meeting, and we asked questions right then and there.

Those 40 million doses? They should be ready now by late 2002, a two-year advance over the original plan.

Our response is not some one-time "crisis mode" reaction. No, it is a model how HHS and all my agencies and personnel intend to work with your companies. We will never cut ethical corners, but we will push the envelope - in the interest of our citizens' health. If you have an idea, a device or a medical treatment that benefits the public, we will see it through to completion.

The public is beginning to see the whole picture. Biotech has been around long enough that when your industry talks about a role in fighting bioterrorism, it makes sense.

Examples of how you can contribute abound, especially here in California. I read recently about Cepheid.

This Sunnyvale company developed a portable DNA testing device you can use at the site of a suspected bioterrorist attack.

Then there's SRI International of Menlo Park, the developer of a hand-held germ detector that can confirm the presence of anthrax, small pox and other pathogens. More federal funding for bioterrorism research is an attractive source of capital in an industry where it's always hard to find new investment dollars. We all understand that.

We should also embrace the leverage these dollars afford. The increased federal support is bound to mean a lot when you go to the venture capital market for private investment dollars.

Still, I know many of you and many others like you. I know you are patriots, that the promise of financial reward is ultimately secondary to your concern for the future of our country, for the safety of our families and the continuance of the freedoms we all cherish.

For example, Geoff Davis is the chief scientific officer at Abgenix inc., one of two U.S. companies breeding mice spliced with human genes to develop disease-fighting antibodies. He said, "We are prepared to ramp up our efforts on behalf of the government."

That's the kind of statement that means a lot in times like these.

Whatever increased dollars for bioterrorism will build on substantial increases already proposed for research spending.

The President's 2002 budget provides $23.1 billion for the national institutes of health, a $2.75 billion boost over 2001 and the largest ever for NIH. Our funding for NIH includes 34,000 research grants, the most we have ever earmarked.

What we have learned from NIH research - and especially the human genome project - is that the great future long predicted for biomedical research is achievable.

We can make tremendous strides in improving human health, and there is a wealth of opportunities for partnerships and collaboration between the public and the private sector.

We must be cautious, certainly. Every time we uncover vast areas of new knowledge, we can make mistakes, with potentially harmful results.

And there are groups out there, watching us, who would like nothing more to punish the research and biotech communities.

So as we work to advance biotechnology, we must also focus on the appropriate legal, ethical and social issues. We need that foundation to ensure that these advances effectively help humans, and let you do your jobs.

Let me leave you with a something said long ago by one of my personal heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Many of you might not know this, by Mr. Lincoln was an inventor himself - the first President ever to hold a patent.

Consider his counsel as you think of the tasks before you. As he put it, we must add "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things." Our interest is clear. It is nothing less than the security and prosperity of our country. Let me charge you to bring your full genius to bear as you act upon that interest. Your shareholders will benefit, to be sure. But your country will benefit even more.

Thank you again for allowing me to come speak with you.

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