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Last Updated

15 Jul 2003

Source: Washington Post, July 15, 2003


New Bugs

A VACCINE EXISTS for smallpox, and antibiotics can cure anthrax. To date, most of the nation's planning for a bioterrorist attack has focused on providing and improving these kinds of known countermeasures. Some initiatives, such as the president's "Project Bioshield," are designed to encourage the private sector to invest more heavily in the production of a new generation of vaccines and antibiotics -- by ensuring that there will be a market for them -- and to make certain that, in case of a crisis, the Food and Drug Administration would be prepared to make them quickly available. The National Institutes of Health has also received funding -- more than $1.5 billion in 2003 -- to carry out research to find new and better countermeasures.

And yet many scientists and public health experts fear that the nation's biodefense strategies are not futuristic enough and don't take account of the enormous advances in biology. Smallpox and anthrax could certainly do an immense amount of damage. But so could diseases that have not been invented but that might emerge over the next decade from somebody's petri dish. Engineered viruses, altered genes or bacteria designed to be drug-resistant: These are immediate challenges, not distant possibilities.

First and foremost, the scientific community needs to address these issues. Unlike nuclear physicists, biologists are not used to thinking of themselves as part of a national security apparatus. Until recently, "biodefense" was not a prestigious career path for biotechnologists, and even NIH scientists preferred to leave such research to the Army. Basic safety precautions are theoretically in place in many labs, but ideas are not as well protected. Some who know the field well argue that ideas cannot be protected, because so much of the science is "dual use." A technique that helps patients more effectively inhale medicine might, for example, also be used to encourage victims to more effectively inhale anthrax. While some experts call for new ethical standards, others believe that only more research, specifically targeted at biodefense, will help.

But the argument about where to focus such research also is far from settled. Some want to concentrate on new generations of vaccines. Others think it is time to focus on deeper issues: for example, on techniques that could help scientists move in a matter of months or weeks from "bug to drug," from the discovery of a new virus to a cure (a process that now takes years). Steve Block, a Stanford biophysicist who has advised the government on security issues, speaks of creating a national vaccine authority that would respond to new threats with hitherto unimagined agility. Others are calling for a new "Manhattan Project" to eliminate all infectious diseases, natural or manufactured.

In the government, such discussions have hardly begun, which is not surprising. Scientists concede that it will take time to build up biotech expertise in the agencies that need it, from the FBI and the CIA to the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are relatively few experts to hire, in any case. Still, it isn't clear whether the administration even realizes what expertise it lacks. An HHS spokesman dismisses one of the department's louder critics as "jealous." Another HHS official denies that there is a difference between battling naturally occurring diseases such as SARS and battling bio-attacks. Some molecular biologists disagree; to begin with, a bio-attack might start not with one case but with hundreds.

Knowledge must move far more quickly -- from biological scientists, now in the throes of a genuine revolution, to public health officials. Things that once seemed the stuff of science fiction are fast becoming real.