Monday, October 31, 2011

Critically important piece on biopreparedness: How Ready Are We for Bioterrorism?/ NY Times

Here is another blog post coming from the long NY Times article on our government's response to the threat of bioterrorism.  This article is brilliant in its simplicity.  It simply covers the field.  The author interviewed over 100 people who work in biodefense, and he makes clear that the $60+ billion spent on bioterrorism efforts since 2001has not been well spent.  To say the least.  Excerpts and commentary follow.
... And a report by the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, formed in 2007, concluded: “To date, the U.S. government has invested most of its nonproliferation efforts and diplomatic capital in preventing nuclear terrorism. The commission believes that it should make the more likely threat — bioterrorism — a higher priority.”
This refers to the fact that the USG has failed to pursue the most obvious way to protect Americans from bioterrorism:  adding teeth to the treaty banning biological weapons.  The 1972 treaty bans biological weapon production and use, but lacks any inspections or sanctions, making it almost imposible for the treaty to be enforced.
... After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, to develop a new vaccine for anthrax that would replace the controversial formula developed 50 years ago by the Army — which is known to have serious side effects and has never been approved for children — there is still no new vaccine.
The anthrax vaccine manufacturer is unique in the amount spent on lobbying, and is also unique in the 300% markup it receives for the vaccine over the cost of production.
... Last year, two separate review boards evaluated the state of the country’s biodefense program, and each report came back scathing. The National Biodefense Science Board, a nonpartisan task force created in 2006 to oversee countermeasure development, delivered a 103-page report to the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, describing “lack of urgency,” “lack of coherence,” “lack of prioritization” and “lack of synchronization.” The title of the report was “Where Are the Countermeasures?” And the commission created by Congress in 2007 to evaluate all defenses for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats delivered its final report, offering letter grades in several categories. For attention to the safe storage of toxins, the government received an A. For openness and transparency, a B-minus. For biodefense, the grade was an F.

... Even within the biodefense community, there is a widespread sense that the countermeasure program is failing. Early this year, Sebelius described the effort as “full of leaks, choke points and dead ends,” and in more than 100 interviews with senior officials from each of the federal agencies related to countermeasure development — including past and current program heads at the White House, the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health and the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services — I heard an endless series of grim diagnoses on the health of the nation’s biodefenses. As one senior official in the Obama administration put it: “We need a new model. This is never going to work.”

... Officials at Health and Human Services were also determined to produce and store a large supply of anthrax vaccine, but they were unsatisfied with the existing formula. Some veterans blamed the vaccine for gulf war syndrome, citing research at Tulane University, and after vaccination was made mandatory in 1998, hundreds of service members actually refused the shots. Some resigned from service in order to avoid it; a few were court-martialed for insubordination. In 2002, the most comprehensive study of the vaccine, by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that while the vaccine was “reasonably safe,” a new vaccine was “urgently needed.

Executives at Emergent acknowledge the campaign against VaxGen but say it was not directed at the company so much as the structure of the BioShield contract. “Our issue was not with respect to VaxGen,” the president of Emergent, Daniel Abdun-Nabi, told me. “It was with respect to the approach of moving to a single supplier with an unproven technology. We thought it was premature. We thought it added risk to the country.” According to Abdun-Nabi, the company’s message to legislators was: “You shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. There’s a role for multiple suppliers.” The fact that this lobbying contributed to the implosion of VaxGen and another five years in which Emergent was the only supplier of anthrax vaccine, which has earned the company $1.5 billion, also troubles Abdun-Nabi, he said. “It puts us in a very difficult position to be the sole supplier. I mean, the whole nation is reliant on Emergent. And in one sense, we’re very honored to be in that position, but it’s a tremendous responsibility.”

General Russell, who led the early countermeasure program, told me: “It was Emergent lobbying that killed VaxGen. Period. Emergent bought the Congress. Congress killed VaxGen.” Several current officials share Russell’s view. When I asked one senior biodefense official about the lack of a new anthrax vaccine, the official nearly exploded: “Why don’t we have a second-generation anthrax vaccine? The reason is Emergent lobbying!” 
"Emergent bought the Congress."  You saw it in the NY Times.  A poisonous vaccine, for which you can't get the CDC data or the military data on safety (data collected at taxpayer expense), has been stockpiled for the American public.   At a total cost of about 2.5 billion dollars.  The threat of bioterrorism has been used to justify enormous expenditures for a vaccine nobody wants to receive.

The latest scam proposed to test the vaccine in children, to expand the vaccine indications.  (Anthrax vaccine is not currently approved for those under 18 or over 65.)  Both Republican and Democratic administrations have supported mandatory anthrax vaccinations. The last (Bush) administration approved the vaccine for civilian first responders.  The Obama administration proposed testing the vaccine in children.  Money seems to be one of those things that ignores party lines.

UPDATE:  However, the public seems to have had enough of business as usual in Washington.  According to the Nov 1, 2011 NY Times:
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in September, only 33 percent of registered voters believe their own member deserves to be re-elected, and a mere 6 percent said the same about most members of Congress, both the lowest figures since The Times started asking this question in the early 1990s.

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