HHS Develops an Anthrax Vaccine While DoD Stumbles

 The bacterium bacillus anthracis under the low-power magnification of 10X of a digital Keyence scope. Todd Parker/Courtesy of the CDC
The bacterium bacillus anthracis under the low-power magnification of 10X of a digital Keyence scope. Todd Parker/Courtesy of the CDC

The Health and Human Services Administration issued a contract last month for the production of an anthrax vaccine, while a separate 12-year effort by the Defense Department was bogged down over mistaken shipments of live spores to 50 states and nine countries.

HHS in an Aug. 17 release said that Pfenex, Inc. of San Diego had been awarded a five-year contract worth up to $143.5 million for the production of a vaccine effective against anthrax after exposure. The HHS vaccine was developed without the dangerous shipment of samples around the world.

At the Pentagon Thursday, Press Secretary Peter Cook said the Defense Department still had no definitive answers as to why live anthrax was shipped to 194 labs nationwide and around the world. DoD has also yet to determine who was responsible, Cook said.

Cook confirmed DoD's own data, first reported by Military.com, that samples of the deadly pathogen went to all 50 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico, and nine countries in the Pentagon's effort to develop a vaccine and devices for detection.

An initial 30-day review by DoD in July found that all of the live batches originated from the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said that those responsible in the scandal would be held accountable but Cook said that accountability, if any, would be determined in a continuing review whose results were likely to be released next month.

"It's an active review right now," Cook said. The Army has the lead in the review, he said, and was "continuing to assess the situation at Dugway and these other facilities for safety and for exactly how these substances get handled going forward, and the question of accountability."

"It's safe to say that the effort here is to try to track down exactly where every one of these shipments went," Cook said. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was assisting in the review, he said.

HHS and DoD were on different tracks in their efforts to develop an anthrax vaccine although "we do coordinate," said Elleen Kane, a spokeswoman for HHS's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

DoD was focused on a "before vaccine" to protect troops before they might be exposed to the anthrax baccilis while the HHS program sought to develop an "after" vaccine for civilians, Kane said.

"DoD supports products needed to protect or treat warfighters whereas the National Institutes of Health and BARDA support products to meet civilian needs," Kane said in an emailed statement.

Unlike DoD, BARDA did not do any shipping of anthrax samples to participating labs. "BARDA does not have labs like DoD and does not ship samples," Kane said.

However, DoD was welcome to acquire the HHS vaccine. "If successfully developed and licensed over the next 5-10 years, then DoD may acquire this anthrax vaccine," Kane said.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com

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