Rochester, Minn. — The U.S. used to do considerable research on what is now labeled 'biodefense,' but funding dried up in the 1960's with the last studies on the smallpox vaccine.
Now, scientists across the country are dusting off their vaccinology textbooks.
Mayo Clinic post-doctorate student Raleigh Howe is discussing data with fellow researchers. They're looking at how the body reacts to viruses that could be released in a bioterrorist attack.
Howe's specialty, translational immunovirology, is a rarity in the scientific community. That's why he and his mentor, vaccinologist Dr. Gregory Poland, say they've been working non-stop since the events of Sept. 11.
Poland says he's encouraged by the president's call for increased funding for biodefense, but, he says, there are only a few hundred scientists in the U.S. who have experience in this field.
"While we've known about the concern about biological weapons for one or two decades, it's only now that we're paying attention to it," says Poland. "So, all the money now goes towards biodefense. But there's a generation of people who have not been developing the science."
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would dole out the money for biodefense under the president's plan. The plan calls for $6 billion to be made available over the next 10 years. Poland says researchers have had trouble spending the $2 billion the NIH received last year from Congress.
He says there's just not enough people in the field. Poland, who heads Mayo's vaccine research group, predicts it'll be at least three years before researchers begin using project Bioshield money. Despite this delay, Poland is encouraged by the President's proposal. He says he thinks a biological weapons attack on the United States could be right around the corner.
"In my own mind, I'm convinced of the data that both rogue nations and terrorist groups have these weapons. What's unknown is what circumstances have to prevail to use the weapon," says Poland.
Since Sept. 11, the Mayo Clinic has made significant advances in biodefense. It conducted the largest study ever done on the anthrax vaccine, and is developing a new vaccine for smallpox. Poland says this week he is submitting a study to NIH on the development of yet another smallpox vaccine. This one wouldn't use the virus in the vaccine, thus avoiding potentially harmful side effects.
Arthur Caplan is the Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He says he hopes that researchers will follow Mayo's lead by using project bioshield money to develop new vaccines instead of increasing the production of current ones. Caplan says scientists should also start thinking about other ways bioterrorists can strike.
"We don't want to get so self-important that we think the only way to do damage to our country is by attacking human beings," says Caplan. "You could certainly bring this country to its knees by attacking its food supply."
Caplan says new vaccinations should be developed for livestock as well. He says he's afraid the president's announcement will bring a false sense of security to Americans.
Both Caplan and Poland agree that project Bioshield is the first step in winning what could be the arms race of the 21st century. Dr. Poland says the US won the nuclear arms race through better technology and money. "So as the might of the U.S. increases and the poverty of other nations increases, and where they view that their soverign nature or something important to them is going to be breached by the United States or the western world, the concern is, well, what weapon do they have to strike back with? The only one they can afford and the only one we might not be protected against are biologic weapons," says Poland.
Poland says an attack at this point could cripple the nation. He says a smallpox attack in a major city would make life for Americans like something out of a doomsday film. Since Sept. 11, however, the plot of such a film seems a little more believable.