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.


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.”