Will the U.S. Keep Buying Medicine for ‘Black Swan’ Attacks?

An analytical chemist in Pennsylvania conducts testing for a developmental drug in 2003. Lawmakers are set to consider whether to continue funding a multibillion-dollar program to develop drug treatments for relatively unlikely unconventional attacks.
National Journal
June 26, 2014, 11 a.m.

Con­gress will weigh this year wheth­er to con­tin­ue spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on an­ti­dotes for at­tacks seen as re­l­at­ively un­likely, but po­ten­tially dev­ast­at­ing.

Law­makers helped to es­tab­lish Pro­ject Bioshield in 2004 to in­centiv­ize oth­er­wise un­prof­it­able work on treat­ments for exot­ic pos­sible ter­ror­ism tools, such as an­thrax and botulin­um tox­in. In com­ing months, though, the dec­ade-old ini­ti­at­ive could face un­pre­ced­en­ted scru­tiny of its fund­ing, in part due to a dearth of chem­ic­al, bio­lo­gic­al, ra­di­olo­gic­al and nuc­le­ar at­tacks in the United States since its launch, says a newly pub­lished Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port.

“Con­gres­sion­al poli­cy­makers could de­cide not to fund Pro­ject Bioshield,” ana­lyst Frank Got­tron said in the as­sess­ment. “Giv­en the con­tin­ued ab­sence of any [WMD] ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the United States since 2001, [they] could deem that the per­ceived risk of an at­tack no longer jus­ti­fies [the] con­tin­ued in­vest­ment.”

“Al­tern­at­ively, poli­cy­makers could deem oth­er, more con­ven­tion­al, coun­ter­meas­ure pro­cure­ment meth­ods suf­fi­cient or more ef­fi­cient than Pro­ject Bioshield and re­dir­ect fund­ing to those pro­grams,” Got­tron wrote.

Con­gress guar­an­teed Pro­ject Bioshield a steady $560 mil­lion in an­nu­al fund­ing for its first dec­ade by set­ting aside bil­lions in ad­vance. The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment set aside more than half of the pro­gram’s 10-year, $5.6 bil­lion “spe­cial re­serve fund” to ac­quire treat­ments for symp­toms of a wide vari­ety of po­ten­tial un­con­ven­tion­al as­saults. Of the $3.3 bil­lion ear­marked for WMD threats, about one-third went to­ward small­pox drugs, in case the long-erad­ic­ated vir­us is ever re­built or re­leased from a rare labor­at­ory stock­pile.

Law­makers last year au­thor­ized the pro­gram to con­tin­ue re­ceiv­ing the same amount of money through fisc­al 2018. Rather than main­tain­ing its spe­cial re­serve fund, though, they left fund­ing levels to be de­term­ined through the an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

The pro­gram re­ceived $255 mil­lion in fisc­al 2014 ap­pro­pri­ations, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing $415 mil­lion in the up­com­ing budget cycle.

“The switch to an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations may com­plic­ate [the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment’s] long-term coun­ter­meas­ure de­vel­op­ment and ac­quis­i­tion plan­ning,” Got­tron wrote. “Some de­velopers con­tend that an ad­vance ap­pro­pri­ation helps com­pany man­age­ment more fa­vor­ably con­sider a po­ten­tial coun­ter­meas­ure when weigh­ing in­tern­al in­vest­ment op­por­tun­ity costs.”

Law­makers may ul­ti­mately re­in­state an ap­proach sim­il­ar to the 10-year re­serve fund, the ana­lyst ad­ded.

“De­velopers might prefer ad­vance ap­pro­pri­ations for as long a peri­od as pos­sible,” he wrote. “However, provid­ing an ad­vance ap­pro­pri­ation dur­ing the cur­rent fisc­al en­vir­on­ment may prove more dif­fi­cult than in 2003.”

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