Has Biodefense Gone Overboard?

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The vast program to defend the U.S. from bioterrorism is hurting basic microbiology and could eventually undermine public health, according to an open letter signed by more than 750 microbiologists. The letter--scheduled to be sent to Elias Zerhouni director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week--calls the billions spent on potential bioterror agents like plague and anthrax a "misdirection of NIH priorities" and asks Zerhouni to "take corrective action".

Biodefense research exploded after the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent anthrax letters; the annual budget of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) went up by some 47% in 2003 and now includes $1.7 billion for biodefense. Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright, who took the initiative for the open letter, claims that the bonanza has coincided with waning support for nonbiodefense related science. The number of grants issued in two NIH 'study sections'-- Microbial Physiology and Genetics, and Bacteriology and Mycology--has fallen from 1117 between 1996 and 2000 to 746 since then, a drop of 33%. In the same period, the number of grants for six bacterial diseases that are on the priority bioweapons list but extremely rare in humans--tularemia, anthrax, plague, glanders, melioidosis, and brucellosis--shot up from 33 to 497.

Not only is less money going to research on bacteria that cause thousands of infections each year, the protesters say, but fundamental research on model agents such as Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis, and Salmonella is also in decline. Such basic work has led to vast advances in knowledge, paving the way for new antibiotics, says Stanley Falkow of Stanford University, who also signed the letter.

But NIH officials say the numbers cited in the letter are misleading. Biodefense research spending has come on top of existing budgets, says NIAID director Anthony Fauci, and nonbiodefense microbiology has fared no worse than NIH-supported research in general. NIAID's analysis of nonbiodefense bacterial physiology grants since 2000--defined more broadly and not limited to two study sections--finds awards have been stable, Fauci says, hovering between about 120 and 150 per year since 2000. "I wish those who signed [the letter] would take a careful look at the data," says Fauci. Moreover, studying biodefense agents is yielding valuable insights that will help fight other, more common diseases as well, Fauci adds.

Mark Wheelis, a biological arms control specialist at the University of California, Davis, says he's delighted to see the discussions unfurl. By and large, the three-and-a-half years since 9/11 have passed without an informed debate about exactly what's threatening the U.S. population and how much should be invested to avert those dangers. "This letter finally opens the debate," he says.

Related sites
NIAID's Biodefense website
Richard Ebright's homepage

Posted in Biology, Policy