The last of the anthrax-laced letters was still making its way through the mail in late 2001 when top Bush administration officials reached an obvious conclusion: the nation desperately needed to expand its medical stockpile to prepare for another biological attack.
The result was Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion effort to exploit the country’s top medical and scientific brains and fill an emergency medical cabinet with new drugs and vaccines for a host of threats. “We will rally the great promise of American science and innovation to confront the greatest danger of our time,” President Bush said in starting the program.
But the project, critics say, has largely failed to deliver.
So far, only a small fraction of the anticipated remedies are available. Drug companies have waited months, if not years, for government agencies to decide which treatments they want and in what quantities. Unable to attract large pharmaceutical corporations to join the endeavor, the government is instead relying on small start-up companies that often have no proven track record.
The anthrax vaccine has been at the center of this mess. Almost a billion dollars have been spent on it, with the goal of having a national stockpile in the event of a deliberate release of the bacterium. And not only has this money been poorly spent, but the whole situation has discouraged many in academia and industry:
But some companies on the sidelines say the experience with the anthrax vaccine is exactly why they do not want to do business with Washington. Once optimistic about the president’s promise, many biotech companies and public health experts are now discouraged.
“The inept implementation of the program has led the best brains and the best scientists to give up, to look elsewhere or devote their resources to medical initiatives that are not focused on biodefense,” said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
Even some former department officials who helped create BioShield are dismayed.
“I find this all rather repugnant,” said D. A. Henderson, a former top bioterrorism official. “You have people here who, in the face of a problem of serious import, are using every tactic they can to line their own pockets.”
Many in the science and public health communities criticized the government’s response to the anthrax attack and general threat of bioterrorism. Lots of money were thrown at specific pathogens, with negligible improvement in general public health infrastructure–something that would make us safer regardless of what we were attacked with. (I discussed this at greater length here). Having an anthrax vaccine, or smallpox vaccine, or tularemia vaccine, etc. are great if that’s what the hypothetical terrorists would use. But if they’re craftier than that–or if they use strains that get around the vaccine–then we’re back to square one, and $5 billion further into the hole.
You know it’s pretty bad when even the lobbyists get disgusted:
The maneuvering has been so intense, with lobbyists and media consultants helping the companies undermine the competition, even some of the people who have profited now express disgust.
“This ought be driven by the science, by efficacy and threat, not lobbyists,” Mr. Housman said. “It has been shanghaied. And the implication is our national security is compromised.”