It was the nightmare many had been expecting. Five years ago, hard on the heels of 9/11, someone sent anthrax spores through the US mail to journalists and politicians. Five people died, and at least 17 more got sick. The culprit was never caught.
This relatively unsophisticated attack confirmed fears, already growing in the US, that with a bit more effort a determined bioterrorist could spread disease and mayhem across the nation. To combat the threat, the Bush administration launched an unprecedented biodefence effort. To date it has spent $44 billion three-quarters of it aimed at protecting civilians on new organisations, training, and buying existing remedies such as the classic smallpox vaccine.
Has this massive spending made Americans any safer? According to experts at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh, the answer is no. Last month, they announced that the Us remains unable to defend itself against any anthrax attack involving more than a few envelopes. So what has gone wrong? The centrepiece of the administration's biodefence effort is Project BioShield. Launched in 2004, it is designed to turn drug companies into defence contractors, delivering products to counter potential bioweapons. Project BioShield has $5.6 billion to spend by 2014 on drugs to be stored in what is known as the strategic National stockpile. Yet, contrary to expectations, the pharmaceutical industry has not beaten a path to Project BioShield's door. The sluggish response has prompted a bill in Congress, expected to pass this year, that attempts to make BioShield more industry friendly.
Yet many biosecurity specialists say these adjustments do nothing to alter the fact that Project BioShield may be missing the point. They see problems in two crucial areas: the limited range of pathogens that BioShield is targeting, and inadequate plans for deploying the countermeasures it does have.