Bioterrorism: Pentagon Goes Back to the Drawing Board

February 15, 2011
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 Bioterrorism: Pentagon Goes Back to the Drawing Board

The horrifying events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent weaponized anthrax scare shook-up every American. Officials in charge of homeland defense were particularly shocked. Among other things, it dawned on them that our nation had no good way to defend itself against future bioterrorist attacks.

Soon thereafter, the Pentagon set aside $1 billion to develop treatments for soldiers and civilians who became infected in a bioterrorist attack. The funds went to something called the Transformational Medical Technologies program, which quickly disbursed them to more than 100 universities, drug companies and biotech companies.

The primary goal of the research spawned by these grants was to develop medicines that could neutralize bacteria and viruses that had been specially designed by terrorists to kill people and resist all known therapeutic agents. The infectious agents targeted by the scientists included Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Sabia, Machupo and Junin.

But now, 5 years after the grants were disbursed, Pentagon officials are pretty much calling the program a bust. Just 2 experimental drugs have shown promise, and they are years away from clinical testing, let alone commercialization.

The major problem, it seems, is technical. It turns out to be easier to increase the lethality of a virus than it is to devise ways to fight it.

“The offensive capabilities outrun the defensive capabilities as the march of biology continues,’’ Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and bioterrorism expert said in an interview. “The theory behind [the program] was these same advances should empower the defenses,’’ he explained. “That intuition is worth exploring and investing in, but it is easier to conceive than to execute.’’

A secondary problem should have been anticipated by the Pentagon in advance: for ethical reasons, experimental treatments for nasty germs like these cannot be tested in human clinical trials, yet the FDA requires data from such trials before approving them. The work-around strategy is to test the agents on animals that have been genetically engineered so as to have traits that mimic what is seen in humans, but this process is time-consuming and expensive.

So What Will the Pentagon to Do?
Of course the Pentagon cannot walk away from the effort. The threat of bioterrorism remains. So it has set aside an additional $1 billion to develop fast, inexpensive ways to identify (rather than treat) weaponized versions of the germs mentioned above. In all likelihood, many of the same contractors will play a role in the new effort. 

Early identification may not sound as sexy as effective treatment, but it can be extraordinarily important. In particular, it allows public health officials or military leaders to institute quarantines, restrict air travel and take related actions in a timelier manner. This lead-time can vastly reduce transmission the infectious agent in the setting of a bioterror attack.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t help folks who have been infected. To this end, the Pentagon holds out hope that byproducts of the new research will eventually help in the development of antidotes.

It’s a lot better than the alternative, which is inaction. Our fingers are crossed for positive results, and we will follow with interest.

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