A massive increase in public-health spending is needed to prepare the United States for a possible terrorist attack with biological weapons, two prominent US senators say.

In response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September, Senators Edward Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Bill Frist (Republican, Tennessee) say that the US government should spend $1.6 billion next year to bolster public health and biodefence.

According to a report from the General Accounting Office, federal spending on bioterrorism readiness, including research, amounted to about $350 million in the 2001 fiscal year, which ended on 30 September.

Although this is a significant increase from previous years, biodefence efforts are poorly coordinated, the report says. For example, several agencies disagree over which pathogens should count as potential threats. In addition, most hospitals are poorly prepared to detect or handle a massive outbreak of disease.

To remedy this, the Kennedy–Frist proposal includes $625 million for state and local health agencies — a sixfold increase.

“There does seem to finally be an acknowledgement that the public-health infrastructure is in deep disarray,” says Alan Zelicoff, a biodefence expert at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Mark Wheelis, a microbiology professor at the University of California, Davis, says that the large number of ways an attack could be perpetrated will make it hard to decide how best to spend the money.