Survey signals problem in bioterrorism response

Scientists see country as ill-equipped to handle more sophisticated attack

October 12, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The United States has improved its odds of defeating a biological attack from agents such as smallpox or anthrax, a report released today concludes.

But scientists and biotechnology specialists still think the nation is woefully ill-equipped to handle a more sophisticated -- and, perhaps, more likely -- terrorist attack using newer bioengineered germs or other unanticipated pathogens, according to the report by the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity, a nonprofit organization of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and the Sarnoff Corp., a for-profit technology research company in Princeton, N.J.

The lack of vaccines for SARS and the West Nile virus as well as the nation's difficulty in manufacturing large quantities of flu vaccine are seen as early signs of the potential problem. A major contributing factor is that the nation's system for developing drugs and vaccines operates on a peace-time pace, requiring 10 years on average to produce new products, the report states.

"In a time of emergency we're going to need that to be 10 months, 10 weeks, maybe 10 days," said Mark Lister, a senior vice president of the Sarnoff Corp. and the report's co-author. "It's a pretty ugly scenario."

The report summarizes the results of 30 interviews conducted with government, academic and corporate officials, including senior biodefense specialists in the federal government and executives at major pharmaceutical companies such as Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline.

The survey found nearly unanimous agreement that a biological terrorist attack is likely in the United States and that a naturally occurring epidemic caused by an emerging and as-yet unbeatable pathogen, similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak, is "a virtual certainty."

Survey participants also agreed that President Bush's recently enacted BioShield program, which includes $5.6 billion to stockpile vaccines for anthrax, smallpox and other known terror agents over the next 10 years, should go a long way to minimize the potential impact of those threats. But a likely consequence, the report suggests, is that terrorists will try to develop mutated strains that are resistant to antibodies or entirely new germs that the medical community hasn't contemplated.

Responding to such an attack or outbreak would be difficult and cumbersome because the country's commercial drug companies -- the only entities capable of producing vaccines on a mammoth scale -- have shifted resources away from medicines for treating infectious diseases and toward more profitable ailments such as heart disease, the report's authors said. Without greater financial incentives and protection from liability, commercial laboratories are unlikely to change.

"The measures the U.S. government has taken to date, including the passage of the BioShield legislation, will not be enough to entice pharmaceutical industry leaders into the field and will not produce the countermeasures the nation needs for a truly effective biodefense," the survey concludes.

The researchers who conducted the survey acknowledge that they -- and most of the participants -- have an interest in seeing increased bioterrorism research and spending. One recommendation in the report is that the government increase funding for drug research.

"When you have an investment of $10 billion a year in missile defense, that's the kind of commitment that I think is appropriate for biodefense as well," said Bradley T. Smith, a fellow at the Center for Biosecurity and co-author of the report. "Biology is an increasingly powerful and accessible technology."

But the report's primary recommendation is that the United States somehow restructure its drug development process, perhaps by creating a new agency or watchdog organization. Government-funded research needs to center more on broad threat analysis and less on "organism-by-organism" projects, the report states, and discoveries need a faster, easier path from academia to commercial manufacturing. The drug manufacturers, meanwhile, need more prospects for bioterrorism research to turn a profit.

"If you operate on a bottom-line mentality, the business case isn't there for developing a lot of these vaccines and counter-measures," Lister said. "There's not a huge market for a SARS vaccine, for instance. There are huge markets for things like Claritin, or Lipitor, or Viagra."

The report, titled "Taking the Measure of Countermeasures: Leaders' Views on the Nation's Capacity to Develop Biodefense Countermeasures," will be posted today on the Center for Biosecurity's Web site ( and published in the December issue of its journal.

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