Faster Detection & Better Vaccines

Federal efforts to harden America against bioterrorists are making good progress.

THE federal government's bioterrorism preparations have moved forward significantly this year. The best example is Project Bioshield, an initiative President Bush unveiled in February to give the government blank-check spending authority to buy new vaccines. With an assured buyer, vaccine manufacturers will pursue the R&D necessary to confront smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxins, and other bioterror threats, the project assumes.

"We'll have a better and safer smallpox vaccine, antibodies to treat botox, sophisticated devices that can confirm a case of anthrax infection almost instantly. We will ensure that promising medicines are available for use in an emergency," Bush said Feb. 3 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "Like other great scientific efforts, Project BioShield will have many applications beyond its immediate goals. As scientists work to defeat the weapons of bioterror, they will gain new insights into the workings of other diseases. This will also break new ground in the search for treatments and cures for other illnesses. This could bring great benefits for all of humanity, especially in developing countries where infectious diseases often go uncontrolled."

In early April, Waukesha, Wis. biotechnology company Prodesse Inc. and the Medical College of Wisconsin announced they had received a $1.3 million federal grant to develop faster detection of smallpox, anthrax, plague, and other potential bioterrorist weapons. Eight other, similar grants went to leading biotechnology centers at U.S. universities.

The three-year grant advances tests Prodesse has developed to detect respiratory viruses; the medical school will assess the tests' effectiveness. The broader strategy stems from both the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax mail attacks soon afterward. Federal agencies quickly organized a smallpox vaccination program that continues today, while planning new research and defenses against the real danger of bioterrorism.

Developing quicker analysis--at this point, laboratories can take days to confirm the presence of anthrax spores inside a suspicious letter or package--is crucial. Prodesse uses polymerase chain reaction to identify a pathogen by its genetic makeup.

"Unfortunately, medical treatments available for some types of terrorist attacks have improved little in decades. By bringing researchers, medical experts, and the biomedical industry together in a new and focused way, our nation can achieve the same kind of treatment breakthroughs for bioterrorism and other threats that have significantly reduced the threat of heart disease, cancer, and many other serious illnesses," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said March 19 after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved Bush's Project BioShield proposal.

'Urgent Need' for More Effective Vaccines
The Department of Health and Human Services is spending about $3.5 billion on bioterrorism this year--twice as much as in fiscal year 2002. The department funneled $1.4 billion of that to the states so they could bolster hospitals' preparedness and enhance their public health agencies. One of the HHS agencies, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in March awarded contracts totaling $22.5 million this year for development of an improved vaccine against inhalation anthrax. Thompson's announcement of the contracts awarded to Avecia of Manchester, England, and VaxGen Inc., of Brisbane, Calif., cited "an urgent need to devise more effective measures to protect U.S. citizens from the harmful effects of anthrax spores used as instruments of terror." And he said, "These awards represent the first step toward our goal of securing an initial 25 million doses of an improved anthrax vaccine for our emergency stockpile."

"Vaccines are the best method of protecting the public against infectious diseases," said NIAID Director Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. "At NIAID, one of our top priorities is to work with industry to create new and improved vaccines against possible agents of bioterrorism. These vaccines must be suitable for civilian populations of varying ages and health status. In addition, the vaccines must be safe, easy to administer, and capable of inducing an immediate protective immune response."

Bush this year proposed spending $6 billion in the next decade on more effective vaccines and treatments. "We already have the knowledge and ability to manufacture some of the vaccines and drugs we need. Yet, we have had little reason to do so up until now, because the natural occurrence of these diseases in our country is so rare. But the world changed on September the 11th, 2001, and we've got to respond to that change," he said as he unveiled Project BioShield. "In light of the new threats, we must now develop and stockpile these vaccines and these treatments. Right now, America must go beyond our borders to find companies willing to make vaccines to combat biological weapons. Two main drug therapies used to treat anthrax are produced overseas. We must rebuild America's capacity to produce vaccines by committing the federal government to the purchase of medicines that combat bioterror."

HHS 2003 Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Hospital Preparedness Funding


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The initiative includes new authority for the National Institutes of Health to speed R&D on promising countermeasures and giving the Food and Drug Administration "emergency use" authorization when an attack occurs, so a treatment that is under formal FDA review can be used if alternatives aren't available.

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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