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February 7, 2002

President makes a Pitt stop

President George W. Bush barnstormed into town Tuesday, toured several UPMC Health System laboratories, reiterated his pledge to focus on homeland security, praised the region's efforts in guarding against and preparing for bioterrorist attacks and nicknamed Pittsburgh "Knowledge Town."

The local visit included a 20-minute address to an invitation-only crowd at the Masonic Temple, where Bush spelled out some specifics of the war on terror, particularly those related to biological attacks.

Flanked by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and backed by a dozen local academic medical experts, Bush declared, "My most important job is to protect our homeland."

He said the country must secure its borders by gathering better intelligence at the ports-of-entry, boosting the role of the Coast Guard, improving airport security with more and better-trained inspectors, and promoting intelligence-sharing among federal, state and local government agencies.

Bush said he was proposing a fiscal year 2003 budget item of $5.9 billion to defend the country against the threat of "any kind of war of biological terrorism."

Included in the proposal are funds to develop an early warning system against attack, assist state and local health care systems to manage biological attacks, upgrade public health laboratories and train medical personnel.

Particularly crucial, Bush said, is development of a first-response system in the event of a bioterrorist incident. Citing state and local health care systems as the "principal line of defense," Bush praised the systems in place locally.

He likened a high-tech, Pittsburgh-developed system that monitors public health threats to the 1950s Distant Early Warning (DEW) line that monitored the Soviet Union from points in Alaska and northern Canada for missile launchings.

Bush said, "Here in Pittsburgh I had the honor of seeing a demonstration of the modern DEW line: a real-time outbreak of disease surveillance system, developed right here, which is one of the country's leading centers on monitoring biological threats."

The computer system in place "can take data on a real time basis to determine if there's been an outbreak of any kind, including a terrorist attack. The best way to protect the homeland is to understand what's taking place on the homeland so we can respond," the president said. "I appreciate those who've worked so hard to come up with an incredibly useful tool for America, a useful tool to protect ourselves."

Bush also praised the work of the Biomedical Security Institute, a joint effort of Pitt, UPMC Health System and Carnegie Mellon. "There are a lot of smart people in this town who are working on making this country safe. Some of the things I've seen today, I want to make sure are implemented around the country, make sure others 'go to school' on what's being done at this school."

Bush pledged that each region would have the right equipment and amount of medicine in the event of an attack. "We also need better testing, better vaccines and better drugs if America is going to be safe as it can possibly be."

Bush maintained that the effort and expense marshaled against the threat of biological terror would advance medical care generally, as new vaccines are developed.

"There is some hopeful news," the president said. "Scientists tell us that research we do to fight bioterrorism is likely to deliver great new advances in the treatment of other diseases, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, malaria and HIV/AIDS. The monies we spend to protect America today are likely to yield long-term benefits, are likely to provide some incredible cures to diseases that many years ago were thought incurable. It's an investment that will pay off not only for homeland security."

The president promised to stockpile sufficient antibiotics for known threats such as anthrax, and to expand the delivery capability of vaccines to threatened areas.

"It's money that we've got to spend, it's money that will have a good impact on the country, it's money that will enable me to say that we're doing everything we can to protect ourselves at home," Bush said.

"But the surest way to protect America at home is to find the enemy where he hides and bring him to justice. The surest way to protect America is to unleash the mighty arm of the U.S. military to find the enemy wherever he hides and rout 'em out and bring them to justice. I truly believe that by leading the world, by rallying a mass coalition, by holding people accountable for murderous deeds, the world will be a more peaceful place for our children and grandchildren," Bush said.

q After Bush's departure, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who accompanied the president throughout his visit, told the University Times, "Today was a spectacular success. It was a success in the more private meetings. Our researchers did a spectacular job providing the president as well as [former] Governors Ridge and Thompson with clear ideas of the work that we're doing that could be a model elsewhere. And then, more publicly, what a showcase for Pitt and for the entire region!"

Nordenberg described Bush, whom he met for the first time, as "a very genuine human being, the kind of person I think you would like to spend time with; a good sense of humor, and obviously interested in the topics that were discussed today."

The chancellor said that Bush's reference to Pittsburgh as "Knowledge Town" struck a familiar chord.

"We have been saying for years that the universities in particular had been developing the kind of knowledge base that was going to distinguish this city over time, that was going to be the feature that we were best known for," Nordenberg said. "And to have the President of the United States come and say to what is really a national audience that this is now a city of knowledge, really is a heck of a boost."

q Bush is believed to be the first U.S. president to visit Pitt while in office.

Bush's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, gave speeches at the Pittsburgh campus before he became president and after leaving the White House, and Gerald Ford spoke here as a former president.

Another former president, Dwight Eisenhower, spoke at the dedication of the current Johnstown campus in 1967.

Three presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson) dined at the Schenley Hotel, but that was long before Pitt acquired the building as its student union.

Several heads of state of other countries, including Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and South Africa's Nelson Mandela, have spoken here.

–Peter Hart & Bruce Steele

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