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Bush: Pittsburgh on front line in war against bioterror

In Oakland, president pitches budget to officials who'd like some of it

Wednesday, February 06, 2002

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

President Bush and the Oakland academic establishment were a study in mutual admiration yesterday during a visit that was part seminar and part sales pitch for a vast increase in spending to combat bioterrorism.

President Bush greets the crowd, including University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, yesterday. For more pictures, go to today's Photo Journal. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

In a little more than two hours, Bush studied images of anthrax bacilli on a high-tech microscope, listened to briefings on bioterrorism issues from officials of the UPMC Health System, University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and drew repeated applause from an invited audience of civic leaders and medical professionals.

During a brief speech in the Masonic Temple on Pitt's campus, Bush recalled the Cold War era DEW line, the distant early warning system against missile attacks over the North Pole.

"Here in Pittsburgh, I had the honor of seeing a demonstration of the modern DEW line," he said, ".... developed right here, which is one of the country's leading centers on monitoring biological threats."

The president referred to the Real-time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance System, a pioneering computer-assisted effort to discern patterns in infectious diseases by sifting data from 17 hospitals in Western Pennsylvania.

"To me, it was fascinating, and I appreciate the people who have worked so hard to come up with a critically useful tool for America."

The so-called RODS system, part of the Biomedical Security Institute that is a joint effort of Pitt and CMU, was launched in the Pittsburgh region but has the potential to be employed over a much broader area. It is a prime candidate to benefit from the increase in funds to combat bioterrorism recommended by Bush and his homeland security director, former Gov. Tom Ridge.

 
 
More on the story

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Ridge accompanied Bush yesterday along with Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bush drew one of his loudest rounds of applause with an appeal to civic vanity. "You know, I've come to realize, having spent some time in Pittsburgh -- particularly after hearing the briefings today -- that while Pittsburgh used to be called 'Steel Town,' they need to call it 'Knowledge Town.'"

Bush made the speech after attending a closed briefing with experts from the Oakland academic and health complex. Among those reported to have been present, in addition to Bush and the two Cabinet members, were Jeffrey A. Romoff, president of UPMC Health System; Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg; and Jared L. Cohon, president of CMU.

Following the briefing on the eighth floor of UPMC Presbyterian, Bush stopped for a tour and photo opportunity at a microbiology lab on the same floor. There, Liz Forster, a medical technologist from Center, Beaver County, was sitting before a phase contrast microscope viewing a nonvirulent sample of anthrax. Asked why she had been chosen for the demonstration, Forster said, "I drew the straw."

Bush, wearing a gray suit, blue shirt and blue tie, was accompanied by A. William Pasculle, associate professor of pathology and director of clinical microbiology. Pasculle explained the work Forster was performing and elaborated on the role of clinical laboratories as a line of defense in the battle against bioterrorism.

Bush detailed his plans for spending on public health while putting them in the perspective of the struggle against terrorism. He said that by the end of this year the nation would have enough medicine stockpiled to shield as many as 20 million people against diseases like anthrax and plague.

"I think this is a struggle of tyranny vs. freedom, of evil vs. good," Bush said. "Either you're with us or against us ... I truly believe that by leading the world by rallying a vast coalition, by holding people accountable for murderous deeds, the world will be a more peaceful place for our children and our grandchildren."

In the meantime, he said, the hunt for individual terrorists goes on.

"Oh, I know the news media likes to say, 'Where's ol' Osama bin Laden?'" Bush said. "He's not the issue. The issue is international terror. I like our chances against bin Laden, however. There's no cave deep enough for him to hide."

The administration budget proposal, issued Monday, includes almost $6 billion to combat bioterrorism. Included is approximately $300 million earmarked to allow other states to replicate the kind of disease-tracking program that Bush heard about yesterday.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, who accompanied the president on Air Force One along with U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, said after the speech that the Pittsburgh region was ideally positioned to capitalize on rising anti-terror spending.

But while the budget giveth, it also taketh away. To accommodate big increases in defense and anti-terror spending, Bush's proposal includes provisions that are likely to be much less welcome to the audience of medical and education professionals he met yesterday. Among them are calls to hold down the rate of increase in hospital reimbursements and some education programs.



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