Big Bucks for Biodefense

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The biodefense bandwagon is rolling. The U.S. government has awarded eight lead institutions grants totaling $350 million over the next 5 years to establish collaborative research centers that will focus on everything from understanding potential bioterror agents to developing new vaccines.

"These grants are a big step," says Eli Lilly executive Gail Cassel, head of the American Society for Microbiology's public affairs board. "They will help build the research community we need to develop [biodefenses] ... and respond to infectious diseases."

The awards, announced on 4 September by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, are among the government's biggest research-related responses so far to the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. After the attacks, the White House requested billions of dollars to shore up bioterror preparedness. Blue-ribbon advisory panels recommended that the government set up 10 regional centers of excellence to speed the development of therapies, vaccines, and diagnostics. Last year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) opened a fast-track competition to host the first centers, and universities scrambled to assemble consortia to compete for the funds (Science, 6 September 2002, p. 1630).

The eight winning teams bring diverse talents to the task, from basic research prowess to vast experience validating vaccines, says NIAID Director Anthony Fauci. Each will focus its $35 million to $50 million 5-year budget on a few priorities. For instance, a consortium of six southeastern schools, led by immunologist Barton Haynes of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, will concentrate on anthrax, plague, and orthopoxviruses such as smallpox and monkeypox. The midwestern center, led by microbiologist Olaf Schneewind of the University of Chicago, has botulism, tularemia, and hemorrhagic fever viruses on the to-do list for its 14 members.

Later this month, NAID expects to announce two biosafety level 4 laboratories.

Related sites
Department of Health and Human Services news release
NIAID's biodefense programs

Posted in Policy