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Home > Focus > Government Investment and Cuts in Biodefense Research

Government Investment and Cuts in Biodefense Research

di Jonathan Hankins [1], 30 Settembre 2011

This month has been rather somber here in the US as the country remembered those that died on September 11 2001, and the effects upon society of that day.

One aspect that is cropping up in the press and scientific journals regards government spending on biodefense in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks that followed the twin tower disaster.

An article that reflects many of the issues raised by the Bassetti Foundation appears in the September 2 edition of the 'Science' journal entitled 'Taking Stock of the Biodefense boom [2]', written by Jocelyn Kaiser , and it presents an overview of an argument that is fleshed out by Jon Cohen in his follow on piece 'Reinventing Project Bioshield' in the same journal.

Ten years after the anthrax attacks in the US, scientists are taking stock of the results of the enormous influx of money into biodefense. The articles should be read together, and describe the process and results of spending 19 billion US dollars over ten years, and it does not make for pretty reading. Many mistakes have been made. Millions have been invested into small fledgling biotechnology companies that do not have the experience and cannot produce an acceptable product, leading to the loss of time, contracts and money. Enormous amounts of money invested into the creation of entirely new high security defense labs, one of which has run aground before even opening due to public concern about safety issues. Some argue that involving many more people in this industry in the hunt for security actually compromises the goal, with more people having access to potentially dangerous materials. We should remember that the 2001 attacks [3] are believed to have been carried out by an 'insider' with high level security clearance, although as any web search will show many people cast doubt upon the findings of the Federal Prosecution case that declared Dr Bruce Edward Ivins the sole culprit of the attacks.

The other side of the coin is that this money could have been spent doing other types of research, for example into treating drug resistant bacteria, and that both scientists and resources have been diverted from much more serious and credible research projects that seem to present more real benefit to the US public.

To expand upon this argument it might be instructive to have a closer look at the creation and problems associated with the opening of the Boston University Biodefense Complex and a similar institution at Texas A&M University.

The us government awarded contracts to these two institutions to build and operate two BSL-4 high security laboratories, in the wake of the Anthrax attacks and as part of a drive to strengthen the country's response to both naturally occurring or illegally introduced infections. The labs operate at the highest level of security, allowing them to work with potentially lethal viruses and bacteria such as Anthrax and Padue, both working towards vaccines as well as engineering and re-engineering new forms and strains for research use. The complex in Boston has however remained closed, due to legal action taken by residents living round the site and management and securitycertification problems, despite the operators having spent somewhere in the region of $200 million dollars on its construction.

This article on the Wired [4] website offers a brief description of flaws in the security system that will be in operation when the complex opens, unearthed by an independent inquiry and that have affected the granting of operation clearance. The operators were accused of possibly having played down infection risk by using less virulent strains in their modeling and having 'glossed over environmental justice concerns'.

For a more detailed description of the debate regarding the pros and cons of constructing the complex see this article originally [5] published in the Boston Globe newspaper and for a full explanation of the legal processes involved see this Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law bulletin [6]. The most recent development on the issue is the Boston University's request to open the complex to operate as a lower security institution than originally planned, adding to the already existing institutions within the Greater Boston area that are licensed to operate [7] at this level of security.

Several reasons that locals do not want the complex opened are cited in various articles. Security, secrecy surrounding internal operations and the question of who actually has control of decisions taken there regarding research choice to name just a few. A look at the operating issues raised by the Texas plant opens various arguments, although we cannot at any point make the assumption (nor would like to imply) that the Boston complex management would behave in a similar way. The secrecy issue is at the fore, with the University of Texas Medical Branch that operates the site reluctant to release documents about the research carried out at the lab and recent accidents. A local interest group calling itself The Sunshine Project has fought legal battles for several years in order to force the release of these documents, and this article [8] describes how the institution is refusing to release documents even in the face of a court order against them. Further documents [9] demonstrate that the institution has failed to report accidents involving the contamination of their workers. The following report published by a different source on the RENSE website [10] describes how one case of reported contamination seems to have been caused by a faulty seal in a Madison Aerosol Chamber, a central piece of equipment that has previously been described as foolproof but now appears to show design faults, and is in general use in complexes such as that in Texas and Boston throughout the world.

To return to the original argument however, the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News [11] journal carries an article entitled 'A Decade After 9/1, Spending Cuts Challenge Biodefense Effort Spawned By Attacks' written by Alex Philippidis.

The article contains far too many figures to make it light reading or even easily understandable, but an overall conclusion seems to be this, the US government is cutting spending everywhere, including on biodefense. This means trimming the Bioshield project named above as well as various other programs' budgets. And they are serious budgets. Billions of dollars are distributed each year to various companies to aid research into treatments for potentially destructive viruses that may be released in a potential terrorist attack. Complications due to the ongoing negotiation process aimed at cutting public debt (and therefore spending) mean that several of these contracts may face cuts in the near future. Another piece of information to extract from these figures is that this year's spending was at least on par with last year (depending on where you take your analysis) and represents the tail of an explosion in investment that would be maintained or even still rise were it not for the political and fiscal problem faced by the US economy.

The real situation is however very difficult to understand, and one of the reasons is that there are so many different figures banded about. This problem is summed up by the following quotes that appears in the article;

"While some high-level biodefense strategies have been developed, there is no broad, integrated national strategy that encompasses all stakeholders with biodefense responsibilities that can be used to guide the systematic identification of risk, assessment of resources needed to address those risks, and the prioritization and allocation of investment across the entire biodefense enterprise", and "Further, neither the Office of Management and Budget nor the federal agencies account for biodefense spending across the entire federal government. As a result, the federal government does not know how much is being spent on this critical national security priority."

This quote is from the US Government accountability office. Certainly food for thought given the enormous amount of money and scientific, political and ethical implications involved.

This recent article in the online Investorplace journal [12] demonstrates the knock on effect of all of this talk about spending cuts. The title '3 stocks to Avoid When the Government Reins in Spending' is self-explanatory, and not casually one of the 3 is a biotechnology company that specializes in selling testing machinery to mainly government funded biodefense and biotech related institutions.

As this article on Centerwatch [13] demonstrates, spending on biotechnology in more generic terms is also a priority for the Chinese government, which over the next 5 years will invest 308.5 billion dollars and generate one million jobs in the sector. Genetic modification, controlling infectious diseases, extending people's life expectancy and a myriad of other topics and goals make biotechnology a strategic pillar industry of China's development drive, making the country one of the most important operators in this sector today.

Bearing in mind the current lack of international regulation and difficulty enforcing that which exists, let's just hope that they all have some responsibly minded people in charge, both on a political and scientific level.


(Photo: Anthrax [14] by AgriLife Today from Flickr)

Mostra/Nascondi i link citati nell'articolo

Link citati nell'articolo:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6047/1214.summary
  3. 3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_anthrax_attacks
  4. 4] http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/11/nihs-biodefense/
  5. 5] http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2004/08/08/when_bioterror_moves_next_door?pg=full
  6. 6] http://seachange.wbumpus.com/node/21518
  7. 7] http://www.bu.edu/neidl/2011/08/18/biolab-officials-hoping-to-start-research-this-year/
  8. 8] http://www.sunshine-project.org/publications/pr/pr280207.html
  9. 9] http://www.sunshine-project.org/publications/pr/pr260607.html 
  10. 10] http://www.rense.com/general64/fe.htm
  11. 11] http://www.genengnews.com/analysis-and-insight/a-decade-after-9-11-spending-cuts-challenge-biodefense-effort-spawned-by-attacks/77899455/
  12. 12] http://www.investorplace.com/2011/08/3-stocks-to-avoid-government-spending/
  13. 13] http://www.centerwatch.com/news-online/article/1830
  14. 14] http://www.flickr.com/photos/agrilifetoday/5572287792
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cc - photo by AgriLife Today from Flickr




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