BioShield: Bad News

This story about "Project BioShield," the government's botched effort to build up a vaccine supply against anthrax and other bioterror threats, is a nice wrap-up of one of the administration's most troubled homeland security efforts (and that's saying a lot). But the story also kind of misses, or at least sidesteps, the point.anthrax_capitol.jpgSince it was introduced in 2003, the core of the BioShield program has been a slow-motion trainwreck. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to get this new supply of vaccine -- with few results to show for it.But the real tragedy may be in the billions of research dollars BioShield is twisting around. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is now spending "$1.7 billion on biodefense -- up from just $42 million in 2001 -- out of a $4.3 billion budget," Time noted earlier in the year. That's to fight bioagents which are really, really hard to turn into weapons -- and even when they are weaponized, don't kill all that many. Remember the 2001 anthrax attack? Five people dead. "Compare that to a real biological killer, like tuberculosis," I suggested in a 2003 Tech Central Station article.

It ends the life of more than 2 million people every year. But the federal government is "luring researchers away" from scientific research into TB and other infections of mass destruction, notes... the Federation of American Scientists.UCLA's Dr. Marcus Howritz was "on the cusp of real progress" in developing a better TB vaccine... Now he's been diverted into working on a barely-lethal biological agent.Nancy Connell, who heads a Pentagon-funded bio-defense lab in Newark, NJ, doesn't think a biological strike is all that likely. But she takes grants to study smallpox and anthrax, because she can use the same research funds to work on flu and TB, which "actually do kill people," she notes.
But the redirection of resources may not be the worst part. It's where all this semi-questionable research is happening that's truly spooky. The government is funding the construction of a bazillion new "hot zone" labs, packed with the deadliest of biothreats. And it's these labs that are the most likely sources of an outbreak. Because safety at these places ain't exactly iron-clad. Three Boston University lab workers were infected with tularemia, or rabbit fever, back in January, 2005. Nine months later, plague-ridden mice escaped from Connell's lab in New Jersey. Thanks, BioShield.
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