Senate majority leader Bill Frist yesterday called for a large-scale national effort to combat emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism, telling an assembly of students and faculty at Harvard Medical School that the nation was unprepared to fend off "an approaching storm" of epidemics that could kill millions.
Frist, a Tennessee Republican who graduated from Harvard's medical school in 1978, said the destructive power of a biological weapon unleashed by terrorists, or a mutating virus, could dwarf the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I call for the creation of the ability to detect, identify, and model any emerging or newly emerging infection, present or future, natural or otherwise," said Frist, calling for support of legislation pending in Congress that would strengthen the nation's defenses against bioterrorism and raise preparedness to combat potential epidemics. "We must open our eyes to face the single greatest threat to our safety and security today."
The speaking engagement yesterday at Harvard allowed Frist to play the role of doctor-statesman, bantering with students about infectious disease and his medical work as a missionary in rural Africa rather than managing the intense political pressures that have been building in the Senate in recent months, most prominently during debates over filibustering of judicial appointments, stem cell research, the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations, and Congress's involvement in the Terri Schiavo case.
Frist has played a central role in all those dramas, amid speculation that he will run for the presidency in 2008. Yesterday, he took audience questions only on infectious diseases and health policy. Afterward, Frist's aides said he would not take any reporters' questions unrelated to the topics.
"Being a doctor was part of his key to success in getting elected," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "He was the noncareer politician. He came across as a knowledgeable professional in a field people respect. But now he's the majority leader of a very conservative caucus. That has totally changed his image."
A planned confrontation by Harvard students was muted: They drafted a letter, signed by more than 110 Harvard faculty members and students, listing Frist's shortcomings on global health policy, but were able to present it only after the audience had filed out. The students ended up posing for pictures with Frist.
In his speech, before more than 500 people as part of an annual Harvard lecture series on health policy, Frist said a spate of recent infectious-disease outbreaks signaled that contagions were rapidly mutating in ways that could soon threaten entire nations: reports of drug-resistant HIV; avian flu cases in Asia, which are reminiscent of the flu pandemic that killed 20 to 40 million people in 1918 and 1919 in that both were transmitted to humans by farm animals; and hundreds of cases of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Angola. These, combined with the possibility of bioterrorist strikes, leave the United States vulnerable to catastrophe, Frist said.
"Panic, suffering, and the spread of disease would intensify, the economy would become crippled, electrical power would flicker out, and food and medical supplies would fail to move," he said.
Frist urged passage of a bill introduced earlier this year that would increase funding for bioterrorism research, help companies develop and stockpile vaccines, increase funding and staffing for government disease surveillance programs, and create several commissions to monitor the nation's preparedness for bioterrorism attacks and outbreaks. These measures, included within a larger healthcare legislative package, are under review by several Senate legislative committees. He said the bill was the first step in a national effort that should rival in scope the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II.