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From Russia with Drugs: Innovative Sources for Medical Countermeasures to Bioterrorism

in Program

By Brian Finlay – Five years after anthrax-laced letters
killed seven people and sickened dozens of others, the apparent
vulnerability of the United States to bioterrorism has hastened a
dramatic reordering of government spending. Since 2001, civilian
biodefense budgets have risen to well over $5 billion annually. But
while financial resources have grown substantially, the United States
remains unprepared for any significant biological incident.

Today,
civilian biodefense spending is spread across multiple US government
agencies including the Departments of Health and Human Services,
Homeland Security, Defense, Agriculture, the Environmental Protection
Agency and the National Science Foundation. Among other things, funds
are used to develop innovative new vaccines, train first responders,
enhance infrastructure protection and emergency preparedness, ensure
food safety, and improve biosurveillance capacities in the United States
and abroad to ensure rapid detection of disease outbreaks. The full
breadth of biodefense activities funded by the federal government is
awesome in its scope.

But while money is not in short supply for
these activities, the ability to develop and produce innovative new
strategies, drugs and vaccines to protect the American people is
ultimately limited by both scientific talent and production capacity.
The federal government’s troubled response to a potential ‘bird flu’
crisis is telling. Last fall President Bush announced a $7.1 billion
strategy to mitigate the next flu pandemic. That plan focused largely on
the production of new vaccines once the next ‘super-flu’ strikes. But
despite these new investments, no vaccine is likely to be available for
mass production until months after
an outbreak. Governments lack the necessary R&D-and more
importantly, the production capacity-to bring countermeasure products to
market. Therefore, critical to any rapid reaction capability is the
cooperation of industry-both R&D and pharmaceutical production
companies.

The failure of Project Bioshield to incentivize
pharmaceutical companies to engage in what is regarded by industry as a
risky and unprofitable business of countermeasure development and
production should give the US government additional pause. Established
in 2004, the government’s $5.6 billion commitment over 10 years for the
purchase of next generation countermeasures against an array of
biological agents failed to capture the attention-and more importantly,
the intellectual capital-of Big Pharma. A nearly $1 billion contract
awarded to a small scandal-plagued California-based biotech company to
develop a next generation anthrax vaccine, once touted as the landmark
deal for Bioshield, has since been cancelled by the US government
leaving the program without a significant success story.

Despite
these massive cash infusions, this stark reality should give pause: In
the event of a bioterrorist attack, assuming vaccine manufacturers
globally could find common cause and divert their full attention to
producing a single vaccine, over a nine-month period only an estimated
800 million doses could be developed and produced for a global
population of over 6 billion. Thus, even if Big Pharma agreed to fully
engage in countermeasure development today, the United States and its
industry partners would immediately face a crisis of capacity. In short,
there simply are not enough trained researchers and drug manufacturers
capable of absorbing government research investments effectively.

The
threat of bioterrorism, however, is not just a domestic issue for
America. No one state can readily prepare itself in isolation to combat
the spread of infectious disease-either naturally occurring or
deliberately propagated. Infectious agents do not respect borders, and
states everywhere could be at risk following an outbreak anywhere. As
such, the United States should be aggressive in exploring strategies for
international cooperation in its countermeasure development activities.
By engaging other countries, the United States government can not only
access a significantly expanded array of novel research talent, but if
pursued effectively, it can do so at significantly lower cost while
leveraging other foreign policy objectives.

Throughout the Cold
War, the Soviet Union developed a massive state-owned bioresearch and
production capacity. While the Western world funneled its most talented
medical researchers and scientists into solving the most vexing public
health challenges of the day, Moscow pushed its biggest brains into what
became a 60,000-employee strong biological weapons complex. For
decades, the Soviet Union attached the highest priority to cultivating
unmatched capabilities in working with these agents of war. In turn, it
weaponized thousands of tons of viruses, toxins, and bacteria, including
anthrax, smallpox, botulinal toxin, and plague.

While many
experts believe that the remnants of the Soviet biological weapons
complex continue to pose a serious threat, today the capacity resident
within that complex also affords unparalleled opportunities to address
issues of global public health and meet the continued threat of
bioterrorism. Russia retains world class capabilities for tissue culture
and is a global leader on the identification and utilization of
bacteriophages and novel drug design and testing. To date, the failure
to harness these talents for the benefit of humankind has been a direct
result of the inability of both Moscow and Washington to transform their
contentious relationship of the past into mutually beneficial
cooperation in the present.

A new plan to leverage US government
civilian biodefense investments with nonproliferation and economic
development objectives could yield significant advances in all three
areas. Cutting loose a portion of US civilian biodefense spending for
use as incentives to the Russian scientific community and private sector
is a logical first step toward expedited drug and vaccine development
at reduced cost. The average senior level scientists in Russia draw a
monthly salary of around $200 per month-a fraction of their American
counterparts. Technical capacity in short supply in the United States
could be augmented with a new source of highly trained scientists. The
equally challenging deficiency in production capacity could also be
addressed by the emerging Russian biotech and pharmaceutical sector
eager to engage the global marketplace.

Photo credit: McBrugg/iStockphoto


Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a
multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design
innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably
securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and
expertise.

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