An organization called Science Debate 2008 has been working to restore science and innovation to America’s political dialogue. As part of this process they came up with a list of 14 science related questions for the candidates to answer. Barack Obama has submitted answers which you can see here. John McCain has said he will also answer the questions.
Of particular interest for this class is question 6:
Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?
Here is Senator Obama's answer (in white) with my comments interspersed in black. This is a non-partisan blog, if Senator McCain submits answers before the class ends I'll comment on that too.
It’s time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bio-terror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon—whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply—could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy.
Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen U.S. intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the U.S. government’s bioforensics program for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.
Hmm, I rather wish that they had left the last four words out of the question. I'm going to be disappointed if the answer is solely about bioterror when the intent of the question was about pandemics more generally. There's nothing here that is very interesting from a disease perspective except perhaps the mention of bioforensics. We now have the capability to trace strains of bacteria and viruses to particular source strains and often particular labs.
And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public health system across the country with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases.
This is a bit more interesting. Hospitals have been losing 'surge capacity' (aka empty beds) for years - either in search of greater efficiency or greater profits. There's no mention how this will be done, but the acknowledgment that we need it is a good sign.
I will invest in new vaccines and technology to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency.
This is getting more interesting. Funding for health information systems is a great idea. This will allow us to catch an epidemic in the early stages AND even when there isn't an epidemic we will still help improve people's health by tracking any long term changes in endemic diseases and making causal connections.
I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the U.S. has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.
Ah, interesting, but what does it mean when a presidential hopeful promises to 'help hospitals form collaborative networks'? Does he mean there will be funds available or incentives or he will push for new legislation?
We also have to expand local and state programs to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government’s partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programs, and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation which would have provided funding for programs in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country.
Sounds like some obligatory politician phrasing.
I will build on America’s unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.
Whilst no-one will be surprised that Senator Obama got a shot in at President Bush I would have advised him to take the high road and to praise President Bush's commitment to both malaria and HIV programs in Africa. He could have pledged to match or increase funding.