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Last Updated

06 Feb 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 6, 2002.


Bioterrorism Bonanza

THE PRESIDENT'S budget proposes spending a huge chunk of money to combat bioterrorism: "Absolutely unprecedented," notes Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge of the 300 percent increase, which, added to the $3.7 billion allocated by Congress after the attacks, means the country will spend close to $10 billion on bioterrorism preparedness programs in the coming year. Though spread among 20 or so departments and a wide array of approaches -- rapid response networks, decontamination research, vaccine stockpiles, training programs -- some of the largest increases fall on the smallest agencies, those with scientific expertise. The $1.7 billion the president proposes for the National Institutes of Health amounts to nearly half of what would be the largest one-year increase in that institution's history.

Few can gainsay the long- and short-term usefulness of spending federal money on disease research and the sagging clinic, hospital and laboratory network that is supposed to safeguard the public health. It's often said that defense spending spins off technological improvements to the population at large; this is more obviously true of money spent on vaccines and biomedical research. And as proponents of better biological "readiness" pointed out long before Sept. 11, any improvement in the systems for detecting intentional biological attacks would also pay dividends in case of a natural outbreak of some deadly pathogen.

None of these good effects, though, cancels out the danger inherent in the sheer scale of some of the proposed increases. To spend more on cutting-edge biomedical research is one thing. To ramp the bioterrorism research budget of the National Institute for Allergic and Infectious Diseases from $36 million to $441 million in a single year is quite another. Such bonanzas will strain even the most effective of competitive grant operations. A rush to mobilize the research enterprise in time of war must not translate into a flood of less than rigorous research.

Congress will undoubtedly look to such organizational aspects as it weighs the budget proposals. In a subcommittee hearing yesterday, Sen. Ron Wyden heard testimony about the difficulty the government had in finding medical experts during the anthrax crisis -- and, no less serious, difficulties those experts (and private companies offering technical help) had in finding government addresses to offer their help. Such coordination needs to be a priority. Though the direction is right, the potential lurks in this bioterrorism bonanza for catastrophic waste. The emphasis should be on safeguards to make that outcome less likely.