Bioterror program faces criticism, cuts

The future of a federal government program to protect the U.S. against bioterrorism is in doubt, even as the first million doses of a smallpox vaccine developed under it have been delivered.

The House-passed war supplemental bill cuts $2 billion from Project BioShield, and the Obama administration has questioned the program’s effectiveness in spurring the private sector to develop new drugs and vaccines that protect against biological, chemical and radiological weapons.

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But the Danish company Bavarian Nordic announced this week it has already shipped 1 million doses of Imvamune, the first vaccine successfully developed under Project BioShield. The company has a contract to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile, with an option for 60 million more.

“The recent delivery of our next-generation smallpox vaccine is an example of a successful public-private partnership carried out under Project BioShield,” said Anders Hedegaard, president and CEO of Bavarian Nordic.

“We support efforts by the Obama administration to develop new proposals that will improve U.S. biodefense programs. Eliminating Project BioShield funding now would signal a lack of commitment to biodefense on the part of the U.S. government.”

The BioShield program, created in 2004, incentivizes private companies to invest in costly bioterror research by guaranteeing that money will be available to buy their products. The Obama administration has questioned its success, however, and proposed a new incentives system.

But former Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who served as chairman and co-chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, have strongly defended the program.

They gave the Obama administration a grade of “F” in their Jan. 26 report card on the U.S. government’s “capabilities to rapidly respond to biological attacks.”

“Mr. President,” Graham and Talent write in a Monday letter to Obama, “this issue is so important that we feel we must repeat our past warnings in the strongest terms: Raiding the BioShield SFR for non-biodefense programs will drive a stake through the heart of America’s fledgling biodefense efforts. If the BioShield program is defunded now, before your new strategy is even given a chance to work, we will have to find a grade lower than an ‘F’ for our next report card.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to comment on the House’s BioShield funding cut. The Senate has yet to act on the House-passed supplemental.