Frist Calls for Bioterrorism Protection

In what appears to have been a rhetorical blunder in a speech at Harvard Medical School (HMS) on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said South Korea currently possesses nuclear weapons and is developing a long-range missile program.

The Tennessee Republican seems to have conflated South Korea—a longtime U.S. ally—with North Korea, a totalitarian state that claims to possess nuclear arms.

Frist, an HMS alum, returned to his alma mater yesterday to propose a “Manhattan Project for the 21st Century” that would combat bioterrorism and infectious diseases.

In a question-and-answer session after the speech, a student asked Frist why—given the urgency of the bioterror threat—Congress has focused funding on efforts to defend against nuclear attacks. The most recent Pentagon budget, which Frist helped to steer through the Senate, allocates $10 billion toward the so-called “Star Wars” ballistic missile shield.

Frist responded, “Right now in South Korea, and you read it on the front page—Star Wars may not be the answer to it—but there are people in South Korea now who are testing missiles to send out which will be able to reach 500 miles, 1,000 miles, 1,500 miles. And we know that they’ve got nuclear weapons.”

Both Frist’s office and the South Korean embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return repeated requests for comment following the remark.

“If he said South Korea, it was surely a gaffe. He must have meant North Korea,” said Ashton B. Carter, a former assistant defense secretary who is now the Ford Foundation professor of science and international affairs at Harvard.

‘MILLIONS MIGHT PERISH’

Frist’s remarks on South Korea veered away from the crux of his speech: a warning that the world could soon face “a front of unchecked and virulent epidemics.”

He said that threat of Avian flu, which has jumped from birds to humans in 10 Asian countries, could prove to be far more deadly than the influenza epidemic that killed half a million in the U.S. in 1918 and 1919.

That strand of influenza, which killed between 2.5 percent and 5 percent of those infected, “seems merciful in comparison to the 55-percent mortality rate of the current Avian flu,” Frist said.

The U.S. only holds sufficient quantities of the vaccine Tamiflu to inoculate about one percent of the population, Frist warned. “To acquire more anti-viral agent, we would need to get in line behind Britain and France and Canada and others who have tens of millions of doses on order,” he said.

The senator also speculated on the potential implications of a smallpox attack on the U.S. The Soviet Union produced three tons of weaponized smallpox during the Cold War, and “it is impossible to rule out that quantities of this or other deliberately manufactured pathogens...may have found their ways into the possession of terrorists such as [Osama] bin Laden and [Abu Musab] al Zarqawi,” Frist said.

“Although the United States now has enough smallpox vaccine for the entire population, it has neither the means of distribution nor the immunized personnel to administer it in a generalized outbreak,” he added.

“Hospitals and our long neglected public health infrastructure would be quickly overwhelmed. In such a circumstance, panic, suffering, and the spread of the disease would intensify,” Frist said. “Millions might perish, with whole families dying and no one to memorialize them.”

A ‘BOLD VISION’?

Frist described his “Manhattan Project” proposal as a “bold vision” to respond to the challenges posed by bioterrorism and naturally occurring pandemics—but the senator’s speech did not outline specific policies or programs for this response.

Frist said that his plan would include “substantial increases” in funding to advance research and bolster the nation’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“I speak of the creation of secure stores of treatments and vaccines and vast networks of distribution,” said Frist, who—prior to being elected to the Senate in 1994—was a renowned heart- and lung-transplant surgeon.

In the question-and-answer session, Frist said that the “new Manhattan Project” would not be as secretive or as highly centralized as its early-1940s namesake.

He sought to tap the resources of his alma mater in response what he described as an impending crisis.

“For the sake of your own families and children, for the honor and satisfaction of doing right, I bid you, the stewards of this great institution of higher learning and research, to join me in this essential effort,” he told the assembled crowd.

But Frist’s reception was lukewarm.

More than 100 students, faculty members, and staff members presented Frist with an open letter lambasting the senator’s legislative actions.

The letter suggested that Frist has failed to take concrete measures to bring an end to genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. It also criticized Frist’s voting record on HIV/AIDS funding, women’s reproductive health care, and abortion rights.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.