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Study slams biodefense plan

By Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff, 1/23/2004

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's efforts at creating new vaccines and drugs to combat biological weapons are poorly organized, underfunded, and unlikely to produce successful results in the near term, if ever, according to a congressionally mandated study released yesterday.

According to the report, the United States has not developed any vaccines and "only a few drugs as medical biodefense countermeasures" since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the specter of biological warfare against US troops was first brought to the public consciousness.

The study, by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, recommended that Congress establish a new Medical Biodefense Agency to direct Defense Department research and development of medicines for dealing with biological warfare attacks as well as regular infectious diseases.

"The biodefense efforts of the Department of Defense are poorly organized to develop and license vaccines, therapeutic drugs, and antitoxins to protect members of the armed forces against biological warfare agents," said the report's executive summary. "These efforts are characterized by fragmentation of responsibility and authority, changing strategies that have resulted in lost time and expertise, and a lack of financial commitment commensurate with the requirements of program goals."

The study was commissioned by Congress to look at the Defense Department's research into medical defenses against biological warfare, such as vaccines and other drugs.

"The Department of Defense is evaluating the recommendations of the . . . report. We generally agree with many of them," said a Pentagon statement from Defense officials. "We are committed to doing what is required to ensure protection of the health and well-being of our troops."

President Bush has identified biological weapons as one of the gravest threats facing the United States. He based his call for war in Iraq partly on the allegation -- still unproven -- that the country had vast stores of biological weapons. One of the greatest areas of concern for US military commanders and political leaders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq last year was the prospect that the Iraqis might unleash biological attacks against advancing allied forces. President Bush ordered US forces to be immunized against anthrax and smallpox.

Indeed, according to the report, there have been no less than a half-dozen declarations since 1993 from either the White House or the Pentagon "that biological warfare poses a significant threat to the safety and effectiveness of the nation's armed forces." Congress mandated in 1993 that all of the Pentagon's biological and chemical defense activities be coordinated in a single office under the defense secretary's office.

Nevertheless, funding for new vaccines and drugs to combat biological attack has fallen short, the report found. While funding for Pentagon medical biological defense research has increased from $245 million in fiscal year 1996 to $676 million -- including funds spent by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- in fiscal year 2003, the figure remains small, according to the study. By comparison, funding for the Missile Defense Agency, "which has a different but also difficult research and development task with a high risk of failure," has risen from $2.8 billion in fiscal year 1996 to $6.6 billion in fiscal year 2003. The Bush administration budget request for fiscal year 2004 contained a cut in medical research for biological defense, down to $612 billion, along with a nearly billion-dollar increase for missile defense.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has stepped up civilian research into medical defenses against biological agents, most notably with a $1.7 billion grant in fiscal year 2003 for research at the National Institutes of Health, though the administration's fiscal year 2004 request was $1.6 billion. The administration has also proposed Project BioShield, which aims to create $6 billion in incentives over 10 years for the pharmaceutical industry to produce medical countermeasures.

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