Bioterrorism Defense in the U.S.

This article argues that most of the $44 billion spent in the U.S. on bioterrorism defense has been wasted.

Posted on October 16, 2006 at 1:38 PM • 25 Comments

Comments

RSaundersOctober 16, 2006 2:32 PM

A classic example of unrealistic expectations. Spend $44B and expect to have medical progress in a couple of years. Alas, in medical research it is common for folks to spend decades, even careers, working on a disease that has proven diagnosis and demand. Congress may have a "need" to solve any problem before their next election in two years. For professionals, that's just not a workable time frame. How much have we spent on breast cancer, AIDS, or malaria? That's the scale issue faced by everyone working at biological levels of complexity.

WooOctober 16, 2006 3:21 PM

hmm.. another huge sum spent on the War Against Terror[tm] was proven to have been wasted? Oh what a surprise!
Well.. at least it's keeping the economy in motion..

Clive RobinsonOctober 16, 2006 3:29 PM

It's a shame the artical does not give more detail on the 44Billion USD spend...

I cannot belive it's all on personnel and the supporting infrestructure so it must have gone somewhere, the question is where?

You have to look at the spend in two ways,

1, Does it buy it's stated objective
2, Does it improve the home economy

The answer to the first is probably no currently, that's not realy that much of a suprise given R&D and infrestructur build times. I expect that this will start to change with time (though Bill Gates appears to be getting somewhere a lot faster with Malaria for a lot lot less cash).

The answer to the second is almost certainly yes if it has been put in the home economy. However the artical says that some of the "BioShield" spend is with a European Company so it will be a loss to the U.S. economy, Opps...

Fred POctober 16, 2006 3:32 PM

Targeting a specific pathogen (or small set of pathogens) for defense is just like putting all your defenses against shoplifters at one particular pedistrian-only entrance into an open-air market, complete with a train station, heliport, airport, bus service, and underground station. The shoplifters who aren't idiots (and most who are) will just go through a different entrance, just as the potential bioattacker (which, by the way, I think is more likely to be a state actor rather than a terrorist cell) will use a different pathogen than the ones that the target country claims it can defend against.

Prisoner #2347October 16, 2006 3:33 PM

"This 'War on Terror' is kind of funny. First you hate it, then you get used to it. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on it. That's institutionalized." -- Guantanamo Redemption

Chris S.October 16, 2006 3:37 PM

it's a good article but the authors clearly have no scientific research
experience. it would be ideal to make a broad spectrum anti-viral drug and
if it was THAT easy and simple to do that, it would have been done already
b/c there is A LOT of profit in that. It's difficult to make ONE antibiotic
or one anti-viral. to make a compound that targets multiple pathogens -
virtually impossible. or at least, it has been so far.
lots of scientists have bene working on this and honestly, the best
protection against an attack with a biological agent would be surveillance
and containment - ie education for the individuals on the front line -
doctors. they're the ones who will see the first signs of an outbreak and
they're the bestline of defense. to vacicnate entire populations is
impossible even if a vaccine is effective and availalble.we have antiviral
drugs for treatment and that's a life saver, too. we could also start
vaccinating against smallpox again but that would take forever to get the
entire US pop.

personally, if takes so much effort to create a 'good' nasty pathogen, and
then to create a delivery system effective enough to infect hundreds of
people - just not worth it. chemicals are much more effective.
if anything biological was used, it would attempt to wipe out our food
sources by introducting a foregin animal disease - that would work well.
there's a FAD (foreign animal disease) conference every year at GA and
around the nation to address this stuff.

Geoff LaneOctober 16, 2006 3:43 PM

The problem is not spending the money with no result. It's spending the money that could have been used to train local medics in basic first response techniques; providing detection and decontamination facilities; making sure that hospitals have the necessary support structures.

That way, you have general coverage that works against all kinds of biological threat, not just the currently fashionable threat.

RSaundersOctober 16, 2006 4:25 PM

@ Clive Robinson,

GlaxoSmithKline worked on the malaria vaccine for 20 years before Gates contributed $ 1/4B. Even so, we have a vaccine that works 20% of the time and has been tried on about 1K people. With 100 people an hour dying of malaria, that's not much "progress".

The problem is that malaria is not some primitive virus. It is a full fledged animal, albeit a parasite. To engineer a world-wide extinction of this species is still arguably beyond human capacity. At least we haven't yet got tree-huggers on the malaria side.

I do appreciate the significant good the Gates are achieving with their foundation. It's a model for what rich folks ought to do with their resources.

Dave PageOctober 16, 2006 4:38 PM

Clive Robinson: Your argument about this being good for the US economy is fallacious. As Geoff Lee points out, you assume that the money spent on this program wouldn't have been spent elsewhere.

As recently mentioned on this very blog, this is like the Parable of the Broken Window - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... for details.

LonerVampOctober 16, 2006 4:51 PM

The sort of futile effort to find some super antigens and solutions to multiple attacks is worthless. The government may as well not try to alter the course of typical scientific research and supply/demand in pharmaceuticals.

In addition, while it might be excellent to educate doctors and the front line persons who will be the first to see these epidemics, that will still lag significantly behind. Doctors have much more important things to do than play paranoid practioner each time something odd comes along. The chances of a doctor being a part of something like a bioterrorism attack are so slim that most will never utilize any additional training nor notice anything until far later.

I think we'd be better served by spending on intelligence on who buys these things, who funds research, protecting what has been created, educating front line people (yes, it is still worthwhile, even if I question the usefulness), and making sure plans are developed and processed for places like the CDC that will deal with any actual bioterrorism incidents.

I'm not from the area, but the levee system in New Orleans last year was designed for protection against Category 3 and lower hurricane symptoms. Now, they easily could have spent a lot more money and made it an impenetrable wall, but that is obviously not the decision made (for the obvious fiscal reasons). Likewise, trying to stop bioterrorism or combat it with super antigens, while possible someday, will take such an obscene amount of money that it is just not worth it. Risk analysis...which, unfortunately, is always blamed once that risk that was accepted comes to pass...

RalphOctober 16, 2006 5:09 PM

1. It is a failure if it fails to achieve any meaningful progress towards the set goal.

This may be why so much money spent by government has no set goal. Talk of secondary goals, trickle down effects and the like are just a clever ways of making the failure less obvious.

2. The defence complex/industry already has arguably more polictical influence than the wider population in your country. It is hard to see the benefit in strengthening it by dragging in another industry segment.

It accelerates the current path, away from government for the people.

Anonymous PedantOctober 16, 2006 6:25 PM

A quick listing of the spelling and grammar errors I found in your post (in order):

artical
infrestructure
3rd use of "it's"
realy
infrestructur
artical
Opps...

Sorry, but I really wish you would take a bit more care. I always use preview and try to avoid silly mistakes.

Why we fightOctober 16, 2006 11:43 PM

> I bet that it was not a waste, from the perspective of the contractors involved.

Dave, if you haven't watched it, I'd highly recommend the documentary "Why we fight" (click on my name for the IMDb link)

RogerOctober 17, 2006 12:48 AM

I suggest that before responding, readers should read the linked article. And then, preferably, read some of the actual presentations from the UPMC Center for Biosecurity, which you can find at:
http://www.upmc-biosecurity.org/website/...

To me they do not seem to be saying "$44 billion wasted", they seem to be saying "all right so far as it goes, but please give the pharmaceutical industry even more money"!

I am also not sure where the $44 billion figure arises. It is mentioned once at the top of the New Scientist article, but the total cost of the projects criticised by UPMC is about $14 billion (billions of which have not actually been spent yet, as some programs are spread over as much as 10 years). This sum includes some pharmaceutical and fundamental research, but the lion's share was in upgrading hospitals and other medical infrastructure.

Clive RobinsonOctober 17, 2006 4:49 AM

@Anonymous Pedant,

Thanks as always for the "bash my gramma" corrections, I guess old habits are very hard to break ;)

@Dave Page

"you assume that the money spent on this program wouldn't have been spent elsewhere."

Ah, I actualy had made the very broad assumption that Governments do what they always do, which is spend the money they gather from taxation etc. What they spend it on is generaly viewed as not significant in the short term, just that they spend it (after all votes have to be purchased either directly or on a promisory note).

The point I was making was not which other U.S. Government budget was robbed, but if the money was spent in the U.S. home economy or the economy of another country.

In past times there was a very general argument that all money spent by a Government was benificial for the economy by stimulating "economic churn" via the increased rotation of money.

The reality of today with a global marketplace is "in which economy is the money spent" and "which economy benifits, and which loses" both in the short and long terms and importantly the reasons why.

It is the same question as "outsourcing call centers to XXXX", where XXXX is the non home country the managment of the organisation outsourcing thinks offers the "best options" (usually in the short term only, such is the life cycle of an executive).

If XXXX buys a lot of goods / services etc from the home economy then the effects on the home economy are less in the short term than if XXXX does not buy from the home economy. The long term effects depend a lot on what the other country buys and why.

The organisation however will see short term improvments for the share holders by way of marginaly increased profits. However In the long term the outsourcing organisation will lose income in the home economy as this usually depends on customers in the home economy buying from it. And the organisations customers either directly or indirectly where the staff it might otherwise have employed in the home economy, or those who made money from them (including the Government).

For a global organisation this does not overly matter as they will evolve their business to the areas where they percieve there is profit to be made, so they may well end up in XXXX if it has a strong economy and tax/other advantages.

Unfortunatly governments do not have the same ability to move so they do not generaly benifit from the organisations move into foreign governments economy. Likewise the people living in the home country have lost out not just in terms of jobs but also in terms of tax revenue for "public spending"...

Likewise in the past economies where percived as "growing or shrinking", not as is more commonly thought today "evolving". It is also felt today that established businesses fail, not because of like for like competition, where the competition is more "efficient", but due to competition from "inovation" which is another form of evolution.

This gives rise to the notion that the home Government and its economy could easily be out evolved by a foreign government and their economy, simply by spending tax revenue in that country. As for evolution what was it Darwin said about survival....

As the Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter once said,
"The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in"

swiss connectionOctober 17, 2006 7:28 AM

@Clive Robinson

> 2, Does it improve the home economy

Well yes, it does, but unfortunately, the money goes to managers and owners of contractors who already have lots of money, and it is money that goes into the stockpile of money seeking investment for a decent ROI. Better for the economy would be to give it to the very poor, then the money (every cent of it) would flow immediately into the economy and at least 1/3 of it straight back into the state purse via taxes.

C GomezOctober 17, 2006 8:17 AM

Most government spending is wasted. This is largely because so much of it is doled out to bureaucrats with no clear thinking on what to do.

It'd be far better to reorganize and bring all government spending closer to home. I'd prefer less federal taxes and larger state taxes. I can more directly impact what happens at my state and local levels. I have no control on the public dole out in Washington. Really, this is how the federal government is set up, but no one cares about the Constitution anymore.

The lion's share of "Katrina" aid has been wasted for no good purpose at all. The reports of fraud and waste are funny to me. What did people think would happen when Congress, the President, and both parties engaged in a bidding war to say the biggest number every day until major funding bills were passed.

I had no problem with the federal government stepping up to offer aid, but not so quickly. Tiny emergency bills to get things stable are fine, but the largess was simply like handing $100 billion dollars to bureaucrats and saying "here, find a way to spend this." There wasn't any perspective on what had to be done, where people were relocating to, and what could be done in what timeframes.

So, really, this article doesn't pose a War on Terror problem, but a federal government problem. As long as our electors keep responding to Big Numbers, expect their elected officials to waste it.

derfOctober 17, 2006 2:32 PM

Unfortunately, sloppiness tends to rear its ugly head when government gets involved. In the case of the New Orleans levees, the local government levee board that was to oversee the maintenance of the levees instead spent the money appropriated by the US Congress specifically for levee maintenance on casinos and lear jets. While casinos and lear jets may not, in fact, make the levees stronger or more secure, who will notice?

In the same vein, Congress appropriated $44 billion for biodefense in response to an Anthrax attack on Tom Daschle (a Democrat Senator, at the time). If bio-attacks aren't really any more defensible than before, who will notice?

DavidOctober 18, 2006 10:38 AM

You can't improve the economy by buying expensive services that have no positive result. Money spent that doesn't achieve the goal is lost, and the money spent is taxpayer money, money they'd have spent anyway had it not been taken away from them.

On top of all this, the money is borrowed, meaning that the pain will continue a bit longer than had it been paid in cash.

Borrowing is good when the money brings added value that exceeds the money spent. There's no economic benefit to spending money by itself.

If that were true, then I'm sure you'd be happy (along with all others on this blog!) to send me as much of your money as you can muster and I'll be sure to spend it so the economy does better.

solinymOctober 18, 2006 10:40 PM

FWIW, I read a book on bioweapons recently that said that at one time, the entire supply of vaccines for certain deadly diseases was... (drum roll)... one horse. If I recall correctly, we currently get most of ours from a British company.

Apparently pharmaceutical companies are keeping away from vaccine development in droves, mostly because of the liability issue. On the other hand, I once spoke with a woman whose child went into a coma after being vaccinated. She agreed (foolishsly) to have her case adjudicated by an arbiter instead of the court system, and they basically said "there's no _causal_ evidence" to implicate the vaccine, and now she feeds and moves her daughter several times a day... twenty-some-odd years later. Very sad.

It appears that some biodefense technology is only really cost-effective in rare circumstances, in much the same way that having extra capacity in telecommunications is simply wasting money - except when there's a crisis of some kind that leads to massive communication needs. Obviously these kinds of things are not undertaken by the private sector, just like basic research is not done by the private sector, just like it's cheaper to outsource manufacturing where the cost of labor is low, despite the risk that we might end up on unfriendly terms with the countries producing most of our goods.

Someone needs to run the numbers on these things, because human intuition is notoriously inaccurate when estimating low-probability, high-cost events.

There is probably some political or economic term for such things, but I am too poorly educated in economics to know what it would be.

solinymOctober 18, 2006 10:58 PM

Re: malaria

A relative worked in the peace corps in Africa and said the reason why there are so many deaths due to malaria is geographic and economic; most of those people are poor Africans, where it is just accepted that someone who gets malaria will die. This one child had a boil on his neck that he kept lancing and it kept getting bigger; she convinced him brought him to go to a hospital where the doctor removed it without gloves, using only local anaesthetic. She had to fight to get him pain-killers later. Heck, they so don't understand medicine that we were told to label medications as religious items, since otherwise they'd be stolen and sold to people who believed that any medicine could solve any health problem.

BTW, sometimes living things are easier to destroy than non-living, because things that don't live don't need to feed; they can just lie in wait. IIRC, a typical virus can typically remain dormant but infectious outside a host for 3-5 days.

somecareNovember 19, 2006 9:02 PM

Bioterrorism defense program stalls in U.S.

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 George W. Bush said in starting the program.

But the project, critics say, has largely failed to deliver.

So far, only a 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 troubles have been most acute with the highest priority of all: a $900 million push to add a new anthrax vaccine to the stockpile.

What had begun as an effort to test and manufacture a safer, faster-acting vaccine has turned into an ugly battle between two biotech businesses.

Each has hired Washington lobbyists to attack its rival's product and try to win over lawmakers and administration officials. Delivery of the new vaccine is far behind schedule, and a dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services and VaxGen, the company chosen to make the vaccine, could even end the deal. The only doses that have been added to the stockpile are of a decades-old vaccine that has generated complaints of serious side effects.

From the start, officials in Washington knew that Project BioShield would be a risky venture - for the government, the companies involved and even ordinary Americans, who might be asked to take relatively untested treatments in an emergency.

Officials hoped $5.6 billion in federal money would entice companies to develop new drugs and vaccines for anthrax, smallpox, botulism, Ebola and other deadly diseases.

Because of the perceived urgency of the threat, the project suspends some traditional standards. It allows new vaccines or drugs to be used in emergencies before completing the lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process. Full testing on humans is also not required because it is too dangerous.

For their part, the companies have to take all the risks of developing and manufacturing new products; they get paid only upon delivery.

At the top of the government's threat list was anthrax, which killed five people and created panic after letters filled with the powder were sent through the mail. Despite an intense FBI investigation, no one has been charged in the attacks, which affected a tabloid publication in Florida, a New York television network and several lawmakers' offices on Capitol Hill.

After the letter attacks, the health agency bought enough antibiotics for 41 million Americans, but the recommended treatment augments those drugs with a vaccine. The government already had an anthrax vaccine to inoculate military personnel, but it involved six shots over 18 months, an unusually long course of treatment. While the FDA says it is safe and effective, it can have nasty side effects.

There have been reports of six deaths and serious complications, including lymphoma and multiple sclerosis. The military stopped mandatory vaccinations in 2004 after some soldiers balked and filed lawsuits.

The first disappointment with the new anthrax vaccine occurred in early 2004 when bids to test and manufacture it came in. None were from big pharmaceutical companies; they considered the effort unappealing because the potential market was relatively small and profits limited. They were also concerned about liability if someone became ill or died after being inoculated. Project BioShield did not offer immunity from lawsuits.

That left a handful of companies in the running, relatively small outfits with limited experience. VaxGen, for example, had never taken a drug to market. Its first major product, an AIDS vaccine, flopped in 2003. The company also had financial troubles; it was barred from Nasdaq in 2004 after managers uncovered accounting errors.

The situation was hardly ideal, federal health officials acknowledged.

Instead of hedging its bets by dividing the work among several vendors, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded the entire $887 million order to VaxGen. It was to produce 75 million doses, enough to inoculate 25 million Americans.

That decision fed doubts about Project BioShield in Congress and drew loud complaints that would grow into bitter opposition from Emergent BioSolutions, the maker of the old vaccine.

The company did not submit a bid for the new vaccine. Instead, it had been trying for months to persuade the federal government to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of the existing vaccine, its only major product. When executives learned that one competitor was getting all the work, they knew the company's future was in peril.

Soon, though, they found an important weapon for a campaign to recapture business.

VaxGen's vaccine was based on a modified version of the old one; Army scientists had genetically engineered it in hopes of making it safer and faster, with three shots instead of six. But VaxGen tests in early 2005 showed that an ingredient the company added to the vaccine caused it to decompose. It would not survive long in the emergency stockpile.

VaxGen officials played down the setback, which delayed delivery to 2007 from 2006, but Emergent officials capitalized on VaxGen's stumble. They had already gotten health agency officials to agree to buy 5 million doses of their vaccine to add to the stockpile. Now they began pushing for a much larger deal and hired lobbyists.

Fearful of losing the public relations battle, VaxGen ramped up its own lobbying effort, but it was outmanned and put on the defensive by Emergent.

Under pressure from Congress, Health and Human Services agreed in May to double its order of the vaccine to 10 million doses, worth $243 million. The next day, health officials demanded what VaxGen says are additional safety and efficacy tests that will further delay delivery by a year or two. Threatening to sue, VaxGen is seeking upfront payments from the health department or other concessions. If no agreement is reached, company officials say, the entire deal could collapse.

Health officials said they are determined to see the anthrax contract - and other BioShield endeavors - through. In two weeks, agency officials will meet with industry representatives to discuss a new strategy for the program

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