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March 01, 2005


The NIH is an outstanding supporter of basic & biomedical research (disclaimer: they own me. well, not directly, but the lab I work in wouldn't have much without their support.) But basic & biomedical research is not counterterrorism. The CDC is absolutely amazing at rapid response missions, epidemiology, containment - everything you want from a counterbioterrorism agency. (Please correct me if I'm confused; I'm 95% sure the CDC is independent of NIH.)

It is worthwhile to put money into the CDC to fund bioterrorism preparedness (however unlikely a bogeyman the spectre of bioterrorism is... the same measures they will develop with these funds will be helpful for responding to the next west nile virus or other natural calamity.) What basically happened here was that Bush wants to cut the NIH money - I think simply because he hates science, unless someone knows a better reason? - but the NIH has some swing & is good at grabbing for bucks. So they signed on to head this counter-bioterrorism effort... a lot of that money will go to labs doing good basic biomedical research anyway, with a faint hook that makes it passable on a 'bioterrorism' grant. Some of it will go to bona fide bioterrorism basic research. Very little will go to the kind of rapid response preparation we would need (from the CDC for example) to actually deal with a biohazard outbreak.

So the upshot is -- Bush gets to say he is cutting NIH budget & putting the money into bioterrorism; NIH gets to fund close to the same number of projects they would with a friendly administration in office; bioterrorism preparedness (largely) gets the shaft. That said, NIH is still getting underfunded even with this extra money coming in because the cuts (lack of increases) were greater than the extra terror money.

caveat to all of the above: partly talking out of my ass, this is my impression of what's going on but most of the policy info I get is what I read on the internets. Please correct me where I'm wrong.

a decade or so ago, to do basic reasearch, you had to make sure it had something to do with cancer. The it was energy. Now it's about bioterror.

Sometimes it was the same work, but the gamesmanship about grant-writing is legendary.

What's striking here is the response of the scientists. Why would anthrax research get funded at the expense, hypothetically, of influenza given the near-CDC panic about avian flu? Well, since there was no resolution to the anthrax attack, what about tularemia at the expense of 'new' vital pathogens like metapneumovirus or SARS...?

I haven't seen the entire letter yet but will post when available.

One of the problems with all this emphasis on research on bioterror exotica is that a bioterror attack would almost certainly use something prosaic, because it's got to be easy to use. The only high-tech likely to go into a bioterror attack would be in aerosolizing a microbe so they don't stick together and can spread out over a wider area (which I believe was the case with the anthrax case, which is one of the reasons the investigation led so quickly to scientists who had worked in American biowarfare facilities like Fort Deitrich (sp?).

BTW, in case folks didn't know, the most successful application of a biological agent in a terrorist act occurred in Oregon back in, iirc, the late 1980's, and was perpetrated by followers of the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. They were worried about losing an upcoming local initiative that would have changed zoning laws, forcing them to abandon their rural compound. In an attempt to suppress the vote--doing something Rove probably thought about but couldn't manage to put together--they infected salad bars at local resurants with salmonella, causing scores of people to get fairly ill (and thus not be able to leave home to go vote).

That's right, the worst bioterror attack was done with rotten food.

I remember the Salad Bar Offensive. Our sneeze shields were powerless.

thanks for posting the salad bar reference - I wasn't aware of it. For what it's worth, I'd suggest that was more simply a mass poisoning than a terror attack. It doesn't sound from the context like they were really trying to terrify anyone.

For a real terror attack, I guess, in principle they wouldn't need to seriously hurt anyone. Anonymous white powder, or a funny smell, might be a harmless but very effective terror agent. So there may be some value in having expertise in exotic threats it is makes us able to rapidly diagnose or analyze mystery symptoms or agents, from a real public terror point of view, although I agree any actual damage is more likely to be something more mundane.

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