Needed -- A New Manhattan Project for Bio-Defense

Nearly nine years after 9/11, and more than seven full year after the George W. Bush administration, Americans can sleep easier that impressive defenses have been erected to protect them against smallpox and other biological war threats, can't they? Well, no. Not exactly.

In my last blog on the subject, I spelled out why smallpox is the most dangerous potential disease on the planet, more than 30 years after it was supposed to have been wiped out. I also noted the efforts by extreme Islamists and others to grow the smallpox virus and weaponize it.

However, in February this year, a new official U.S. government report documents a continuing state of un-readiness, lack of preparedness and even lack of urgency in plans to defend the American people against this and other biological warfare threats. Why didn't President Bush do more? And what ever happened to the much vaunted dynamism and intellectual brilliance of President Obama and his A-Team? I think we all know the answer to that question.

The nation's continuing appalling lack of preparedness against biological attack was spelled out in a 33 -page report published in February by the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB), an advisory panel to the mammoth Department of Health and Human Services and entitled "Optimizing Industrial Involvement with Medical Countermeasure Development." I am shocked, shocked to inform you that the report appeared to a deafening lack of interest from the so-called mainstream media. If it wasn't for CIDRAP -- the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota -- no one would know about the report at all.

CIDRAP is part of the mosaic of serious institutions that monitor these problems and reliably document them. But the problem is not that such centers do not exist in adequate number -- They do. But the public remains totally unaware of them. "Time", "Newsweek" and the dinosaur TV network news operations prefer to spend millions of dollars a year on a handful of predictable, personable young faces and their vapid columns than hire professionals to give sustained coverage of threats that may yet cost the lives of scores of millions of Americans.

The NBSB board came to a sober conclusion at odds with the fashionable economic orthodoxies of left and right alike. It warned that the American people needed a combination of big business and big government to protect them against the looming threat. It said the kind of close cooperation between industry and government to develop bio-war defenses had to be on a scale comparable to building aircraft carriers, putting men on the Moon or funding the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb.

"With adequate resources and effective leadership, the various agencies of the U.S. Government can work together and harness the expertise of the private sector in ways similar to those used to produce aircraft carriers, land men on the moon, and accomplish other 'Manhattan Projects,'" the NBSB said.

It is easy to get lost in the endless maze of initials, boards, and sub-working groups that proliferate like kudzu in the homeland security, like every other, area of government activity. This report was actually produced by an NBSB subcommittee called the MCM Markets and Sustainability Working Group, CIDRAP reported.

But if your eyes and brain are still reeling from that last sentence, the serious professionals who produced the report streamlined their research down to a simple series of recommendations that are essential to defend America.

They urge that a host of government regulations still cripple the ability and willingness of private sector firms to make the necessary investments in new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools. "The government has been working for years, with limited success, to improve its inventory of such countermeasures. Inconsistent government support and the lack of a commercial market for those products are seen as the key barrier to their development," CIDRAP reported on the NBSB's finding.

President George W. Bush and his administration failed to demolish the bureaucratic barriers hindering effective government cooperation with big business. Since President Obama took over, things haven't got any better. The H1N1 swine flu vaccine ordered last fall was delivered way behind schedule. The death rate from swine flu was relatively low. But for a more serious attack, especially one deliberately delivered as biological warfare, that kind of delay would cause millions of lives. Work on a second generation anthrax vaccine is also way behind schedule.

The NBSB has already concluded that the United States faces a wide range of deadly agents that could be used to try and devastate the nation. In addition to smallpox, it lists anthrax, botulism, filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg), glanders and meliodosis, Junin virus, plague, tularemia, typhus and volatile nerve agents. However, Food and Drug Administration-approved medical countermeasures are currently available at all only for anthrax, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and radiological agents.

There is some good news, the NBSB says large supplies of antitoxins for anthrax and botulism are already in existence.

To help in preparing the report, the NBSB working group published in the Federal Register last August an inventory of issues helping or hindering industry involvement in countermeasure development and received public comments.

The NBSB criticized the continued unwieldiness and lack of coordination of different federal government agencies and departments. That is a familiar story, of course, in many fields. But it also reflects on the lack of interest and expertise among senators, congressmen and their enormous staffs to work hard and constructively with the administration of the day in streamlining and resolving such issues. That is a thankless task. But it is an essential one.

Lack of funding in absolute terms is really not a problem. The Bush administration and both Republican and Democratic-controlled Congresses have thrown hundreds of billions of dollars across into the entire spectrum of homeland security and national defense programs since 9/11. But a successive administrations and congresses have failed to prioritize and defend sustained funding for key programs, the report said.

It cited Project Bioshield Special Reserve Fund, a $5.6 billion fund approved back in in 2004. "In recent years chunks of it have been diverted for advanced research and development," CIDRAP said.

President Obama has been fond of appointing "czars" to mastermind a wide range of issues, especially foreign policy ones. The NBSB recommended a similar approach to getting the production of vaccines, antitoxins and related agents back on track.

"A White House representative could form and chair an MCM integrated product team and monitor its progress. Team members could include experts from the federal government, industry, academia, and other civilian entities," it said.

The picture that emerges from the NBSB report is a genuinely frightening one. But at least CIDRAP earned its funding by publicizing the conclusions of the report. I haven't seen a more comprehensive account anywhere.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The so-called mainstream media has so far failed utterly in its responsibility to educate the public in a sustained, comprehensive and accurate way about the dangers they face. There are many superb blogs and websites out there. But so far they are only reaching a fraction of the audience they need to.

America and its media still have to wake up. And time is running out.

Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. Mr. Sieff has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. He is the author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East" (Regnery, 2008).

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