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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Anthrax emergency declared

Did you know that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, based on a recent determination from the Department of Homeland Security, declared an anthrax-related emergency on September 23? This is from the HHS website:

On September 23, 2008, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security determined that there is a significant potential for a domestic emergency, involving a heightened risk of attack with a specified biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear agent or agents--in this case, Bacillus anthracis. Pursuant to section 564(b) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. §360bbb-3(b), and on the basis of such determination, I hereby declare an emergency justifying the authorization of the emergency use of doxycycline hyclate tablets accompanied by emergency use information subject to the terms of any authorization issued under 21 U.S.C. §360bbb-3(a).


Michael O. Leavitt

Date: October 1, 2008
Read the Notice in the Federal Register (pdf warning), however, and it seems clear that the HHS Secretary does not, in fact, believe that the U.S. faces an anthrax emergency:
there is no current domestic emergency involving anthrax, no current heightened risk of an anthrax attack, and no credible information indicating an imminent threat of an attack involving Bacillus anthracis.
So what the hell is going on?

In a letter (pdf warning) to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff argued that the current situation justifies imposition of something like a domestic version of the Bush Doctrine. First, an anthrax attack would be a "material threat to the United States population" affecting national security. Second, a future attack would "result in a domestic emergency." Thus, Chertoff concluded that "there is a non-negligible possibility that a heightened risk of attack will arise."

Parse that last sentence: "a non-negligible possibility," (are you scared yet?) "that a heightened risk" (shaking?) "will arise" (you know, in the future).

I think scholar John Mueller would say the threat is "overblown" and that the risk of overreaction might be greater than the risk of attack.

Paranoid people link this to recent warnings about the potential declaration of martial law (thanks to the financial emergency) and the recent deployment of an active army brigade on U.S. soil (to address civil unrest, particularly in the event of a WMD attack).

Cynics will simply point out that the latest notice assures that millions of dollars will flow to drug companies -- and that both the pharmaceutical companies and the officials ordering the drug production will be released from future liability because of the declared emergency.

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