Fortress America?

rlying strategy seems sensible. Normally companies don't make remedies for the rare diseases thought most likely to be used as weapons, as there is no profit in it. So BioShield promises companies that it will buy particular drugs and vaccines for the threats it fears most, in theory giving the companies an incentive to do the rest. Why, then, has the response so far has been so unimpressive? Project BioShield has awarded contracts for seven products, worth $2 billion. Two are for antibody-based therapies for botulism and anthrax. One is for 10 million doses of the military's existing anthrax vaccine a concoction of bacterial debris whose alleged side effects have led some soldiers to prefer court-martial to vaccination. The single biggest slice of funding, $878 million, has been pledged to VaxGen of Brisbane, California, for 75 million doses of a purer, new-generation anthrax vaccine. An order is also expected for 20 million doses of an improved smallpox vaccine from the Danish firm Bavarian Nordic, while Project BioShield has provided $4 million to universities to fund basic pathogen research.

This is new territory for a government agency, which may explain the slow start. "the government has never done anything like this before," says Brad smith of the Center for Biosecurity. The Department of Homeland security must first decide what "designated threats" to target and then the Department of Health commissions drugs or vaccines designed to protect against them. So far the diseases it has picked extend to anthrax, botulism and smallpox.

This targeted "one bug, one drug" approach is, however, seen by some biodefence specialists as fundamentally misguided. Ken alibek, head of the soviet and then Russian bacterial weapons programme until 1992, says it allows attackers to create pathogens that evade or resist each remedy as fast as it is developed. "Based on the former soviet model, it takes three to four years to engineer a drug-resistant o

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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