It was the nightmare many had been expecting. Five years ago, hard on the heels of 9/11, someone sent anthrax spores through the US mail to journalists and politicians. Five people died, and at least 17 more got sick. The culprit was never caught.
This relatively unsophisticated attack confirmed fears, already growing in the US, that with a bit more effort a determined bioterrorist could spread disease and mayhem across the nation. To combat the threat, the Bush administration launched an unprecedented biodefence effort. To date it has spent $44 billion – three-quarters of it aimed at protecting civilians – on new organisations, training, and buying existing remedies such as the classic smallpox vaccine.
Has this massive spending made Americans any safer? According to experts at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh, the answer is no. Last month, they announced that the Us remains unable to defend itself against any anthrax attack involving more than a few envelopes. So what has gone wrong? The centrepiece of the administration's biodefence effort is Project BioShield. Launched in 2004, it is designed to turn drug companies into defence contractors, delivering products to counter potential bioweapons. Project BioShield has $5.6 billion to spend by 2014 on drugs to be stored in what is known as the strategic National stockpile. Yet, contrary to expectations, the pharmaceutical industry has not beaten a path to Project BioShield's door. The sluggish response has prompted a bill in Congress, expected to pass this year, that attempts to make BioShield more industry friendly.
Yet many biosecurity specialists say these adjustments do nothing to alter the fact that Project BioShield may be missing the point. They see problems in two crucial areas: the limited range of pathogens that BioShield is targeting, and inadequate plans for deploying the countermeasures it does have.
On the face of it, BioShield's underlying strategy seems sensible. Normally companies don't make remedies for the rare diseases thought most likely to be used as weapons, as there is no profit in it. So BioShield promises companies that it will buy particular drugs and vaccines for the threats it fears most, in theory giving the companies an incentive to do the rest. Why, then, has the response so far has been so unimpressive? Project BioShield has awarded contracts for seven products, worth $2 billion. Two are for antibody-based therapies for botulism and anthrax. One is for 10 million doses of the military's existing anthrax vaccine – a concoction of bacterial debris whose alleged side effects have led some soldiers to prefer court-martial to vaccination. The single biggest slice of funding, $878 million, has been pledged to VaxGen of Brisbane, California, for 75 million doses of a purer, new-generation anthrax vaccine. An order is also expected for 20 million doses of an improved smallpox vaccine from the Danish firm Bavarian Nordic, while Project BioShield has provided $4 million to universities to fund basic pathogen research.
This is new territory for a government agency, which may explain the slow start. "the government has never done anything like this before," says Brad smith of the Center for Biosecurity. The Department of Homeland security must first decide what "designated threats" to target – and then the Department of Health commissions drugs or vaccines designed to protect against them. So far the diseases it has picked extend to anthrax, botulism and smallpox.
This targeted "one bug, one drug" approach is, however, seen by some biodefence specialists as fundamentally misguided. Ken alibek, head of the soviet and then Russian bacterial weapons programme until 1992, says it allows attackers to create pathogens that evade or resist each remedy as fast as it is developed. "Based on the former soviet model, it takes three to four years to engineer a drug-resistant or more virulent pathogen," he says. "It takes 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine and have it approved." Jonathan tucker of the Center for Nonproliferation studies, a think tank in Washington DC, agrees. "It is myopic to focus on the designated threat organisms," he says, "especially when the bigger threat is probably from natural disease." A better approach, these critics say, would be to aim for broad-spectrum remedies that work against many different bacteria or viruses. That would be more cost-effective, offer a blanket defence against terrorists whatever their choice of bioweapon, and come with the huge additional benefit of protecting against natural diseases too. "If something works for flu and for bioweapons as well, why not do that?" says Tucker.
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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 7 OCTOBER 2006
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Author: Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist Consultant.
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