Feds shipping drugs in case of chemical attacks

WASHINGTON – The government is quietly shipping stocks of antidotes against chemical weapons to states under a long-awaited program to boost response to a potential terrorist attack.

New York and Boston, sites of the upcoming political conventions, are among the first areas to receive the “chem-packs.”

Within two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hopes to have the allotments dispersed to every state.

Much of the nation’s efforts to prepare for terrorism have focused on biological attacks. For example, the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile contains tons of drugs, vaccines and other medical supplies in storage around the country, so that any U.S. city could receive an emergency shipment within 12 hours.

That’s probably plenty of time to react to an incubating infection such as anthrax, but the ability to survive a chemical attack depends on immediate decontamination and rapid administration of appropriate antidotes.

Yet the antidotes are expensive and have fairly short shelf lives, making them hard for many states to keep stocked.

Enter the chem-packs, which CDC began shipping four months ago.

The gurney-sized packs come with an assortment of antidotes to the many chemicals available to a terrorist; atropine to fight nerve agents, for instance, or amyl nitrite for cyanide. Some are in autoinjectors for use at the site of an attack, others packaged for emergency-room use.

The CDC won’t say which states have received how many chem-packs so far, for security reasons, but did confirm that New York and Boston received shipments earlier than initially planned because of the approaching Republican and Democratic conventions.

The number distributed depends upon each state’s population, and state health departments decide which hospitals will store chem-packs. Hospitals will be able to decide when it’s time to break one out and use the contents.

“When minutes matter, if they need it to save lives, they have the authority to break the seals and go do the right thing,” said Steve Adams, deputy director of the Strategic National Stockpile Program.

The CDC spent $56 million last year in creating the chem-packs and has budgeted about $34 million this year as the distribution begins, officials said.

While CDC would not provide details, hospitals expect each chem-pack to be able to treat 1,000 patients, said James Bentley, the American Hospital Association’s disaster-readiness chief.

Nor are the packs reserved solely for terrorist attacks. The same antidotes would be useful for a major factory accident or train wreck that spilled hazardous chemicals, Bentley said.

The specially sealed packs come with environmental sensors to ensure the materials are stored properly. That is crucial: Until the seal is broken, the chem-pack contents qualify for a federal program that extends their expiration dates for several years, potentially saving thousands of taxpayer dollars, Adams said.

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