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Last Updated

11 Jun 2003

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2001.

U.S. Spending on Bioterrorism Studies and Computer Security Is Set to Soar

Few scientists have worked on diseases that pose greatest risk, and facilities are lacking



The federal government is expected to sharply increase spending on research aimed at thwarting bioterrorism and attacks on computer systems, two research areas that were largely neglected before September 11.

And federal officials say they are working quickly to establish top scientific priorities in the war against terrorism.

In the next few weeks, the National Institutes of Health will announce a new round of grant opportunities in bioterrorism studies. The NIH is promising a faster-than-usual review of proposals, in order to put scientists to work promptly.

While the United States has plenty of experts on infectious diseases, federal agencies have only recently financed bioterrorism research. As a result, only a small number of scientists have done research on the diseases that now threaten the nation's security -- including anthrax and smallpox.

"There are no experts in bioterrorism, myself included," says Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense. "I think we're going to have to build expertise."

The federal agencies also face other challenges, according to scientists. They must persuade researchers who have long been fierce competitors to work together. And they must be prepared to spend millions of dollars to help universities build secure laboratories that can contain lethal, highly contagious diseases.

Cyberattacks have received less attention than bioterrorism in recent months, but could pose serious problems. Scientists say hackers or terrorists could disrupt computer networks that run the country's electrical-power grid, telecommunications systems, and financial institutions. Attacks on 911 and emergency-communication systems could threaten lives, computer experts say.

Those threats are especially worrisome because no agency has devoted much money to long-term basic research on computer security.

"The country hadn't done a lot until we were motivated by September 11," says Lewis M. Branscomb, a former director of Harvard University's Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program.

John H. Marburger III, who became President Bush's science adviser last month, has been meeting with federal officials to develop a comprehensive research agenda. But trying to coordinate the various federal agencies that sponsor research will be a daunting task, scientists say.

Mr. Marburger will rely on guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering. Those three arms of the National Academies, which advise Congress, said this month that they were jointly sponsoring a study to set priorities for counterterrorism research.

Mr. Branscomb and Richard D. Klausner, a former director of the NIH's National Cancer Institute, will lead a panel of scientists to draft the report, slated for release next spring.

Some scientists are urging the NIH, the leading source of federal funds for university research, to devote a sizable chunk of the agency's projected $3-billion budget increase this year to bioterrorism studies. The NIH budget is expected to rise above $23-billion in 2002.

Before September 11, Mr. Bush had suggested a budget of $93-million for research related to bioterrorism. Since the attacks, the president has proposed spending $1.5-billion on bioterrorism issues, with an unspecified amount for developing new vaccines and sensors to detect biological and chemical agents. Several lawmakers are pushing for $3.2-billion to prevent bioterrorism.

Federal spending on studies of bioterrorism was negligible until 1999, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formed an office devoted to such research. The Department of Defense also has financed some research in the field in the last 10 years.

Still, few scientists have focused their studies on biological agents that can be used as weapons, such as the microbes that cause anthrax and smallpox. The government has not sponsored much research in the area, largely because bioterrorism had been seen as a hypothetical problem and not a real threat.

"There's a large and well-trained community of scientists studying infectious diseases," says William L. Roper, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Public Health and a former CDC director. "What has not been done, until recently, is getting their studies of infectious diseases focused toward terrorism."

Scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have just received a $4.3-million grant to begin tests of an anthrax vaccine. While the military has given such vaccines to soldiers, it is unclear how such treatments would affect a civilian population of various ages and degrees of health, says Thomas Terndrup, director of the university's Center for Disaster Preparedness. "That's an area that needs investigation," he says.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center are studying how people can become resistant to antibiotics -- a research area that merits greater focus following the anthrax attacks.

Six people who had developed inhalational anthrax survived because they were treated with antibiotics. However, some anthrax strains may resist antibiotics, says Steven H. Hinrichs, an associate professor of pathology and microbiology at the Nebraska medical center. "It is a very serious concern," he says.

NIH officials say their next round of grants is in large part a response to the dearth of scientists with bioterrorism expertise.

The neglect of such studies has hampered efforts to understand how anthrax can be spread and treated, says Mary Gilchrist, director of the University of Iowa's Hygienic Laboratory.

Federal efforts have not always focused on practical problems, such as how deadly viruses and bacteria might be dispersed by terrorists, says Dr. Gilchrist. When the first letters with anthrax were found, she doubted that the bacteria's spores could seep through sealed envelopes. But that's exactly what happened, according to investigators. "That was a surprise," Dr. Gilchrist says.

In addition to financing studies of vaccines and devices to detect biological agents, some money will have to be used to build laboratories that are secure enough to test vaccines.

Currently, only laboratories at the CDC and at Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army facility in Frederick, Md., are built to contain the most lethal biological agents, like the smallpox virus, according to Dr. O'Toole.

At least one more lab is on the way. Aided by a $2-million grant from the NIH, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is building a secure, three-story facility for studies of deadly pathogens. Construction should begin in January and will probably take two years, says Robert E. Shope, associate director of the university's Center for Biodefense.

Establishing a government-wide plan for bioterrorism research is going to be a challenge for Mr. Marburger, the science adviser, who has no authority over the budgets of the individual agencies.

Cooperation among federal agencies has long been lacking, according to Donald A. Henderson, who was recently named to lead the new Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Henderson, who formerly led a worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox, will coordinate bioterrorism research among federal agencies. He delivered a blunt assessment of federally sponsored research on bioterrorism at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on September 5, six days before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"There is, as yet, no comprehensive national plan, nor an agreed strategy, for dealing with the problem of biological weapons," Dr. Henderson said at the hearing. "There is little interagency coordination at the federal level, and nationally funded programs appear to be as often competitive as cooperative." He urged a joint effort between the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to engage more scientists in such studies.

Meanwhile, Dr. O'Toole says more university officials need to work with the government to set a research agenda.

"For the past generation, with few exceptions, people with scientific and technical backgrounds have not made careers in government," says Dr. O'Toole, who was assistant secretary of energy for environment safety and health from 1993 to 1997.

The government also must recruit university scientists to guard against attacks on key computer systems, researchers say. No federal agency has made computer security a research priority, according to William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering.

"We have virtually no research base on which to build truly secure systems and only a tiny cadre of academic, long-term, basic researchers who are thinking deeply about these problems," Mr. Wulf told the House of Representatives Committee on Science on October 10.

Mr. Wulf, a former assistant director of the National Science Foundation who oversaw the agency's computer-science division, says most federal funds for cybersecurity have been misdirected. Rather than directing scientists to design a system that is impenetrable to hackers, researchers are working on short-term repairs, he says.

Federal officials have sought help from Dartmouth College's new Institute for Security Technology Studies to devise ways to improve security. Lawmakers awarded the center $21-million this year in funds that weren't subject to peer review.

"My central objective is to establish a coherent, coordinated research agenda that sets priorities, and to enlist the best minds in the country," says Michael A. Vatis, the institute's director.

Mr. Vatis says his group is working with about 70 scientists at Harvard, Columbia University, and the University of Tulsa. However, he says, it could take many years before truly secure systems are designed. Until now, he says, "security has not been a top priority for anybody."