WASHINGTON - The future of government-funded research and development for biodefense technology appears positive, based on President Bush's budget and the overall political climate, experts here said.
Unfortunately, though, funding needed to support the infrastructure necessary to deploy the anticipated technologies might not be forthcoming.
"We may have the technology sitting on the shelf, but it is less clear whether first responders will have resources to implement it," said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget & Policy Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Koizumi spoke Wednesday in Washington at the bioterrorism countermeasures conference sponsored by Defense Weekly.
Echoing Koizumi's words, Jerome Hauer, keynote speaker at the conference and the executive director of the Response to Emergencies and Disasters Institute, agreed that R&D money likely will be available, "but we won't have the infrastructure for treating people or delivering vaccines, and I think that is short-sighted."
He said Americans and members of Congress have short memories and probably are bored with the issue. "Public health is its own worst enemy because they never sing about what they do," he said. "We've got to get public health speaking for itself." Hauer is the former acting assistant secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services.
While firms working on countermeasures for biological weapons such as anthrax might have access to government money, Koizumi said one of the key questions is whether there will be enough of it.
It's Koizumi's job at AAAS - the nonprofit group that publishes Science - to analyze the federal budget for its member scientists and engineers who primarily rely on the government to fund their research.
He cautioned that R&D money falls under the government's discretionary, highly competitive spending. Whether it is awarded to scientists and engineers by the Department of Defense (DOD), National Institutes of Health or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), discretionary money is approved annually and can be cut to make up for increased expenses in mandated entitlement programs such as Medicare.
For example, programs such as Project BioShield, Bush's plan to speed development and availability of medical countermeasures in response to current threats, could be squeezed in the future, Koizumi said.
Federal R&D spending this year is at an all-time high of $126 billion. In fiscal 2005, Bush proposes increasing spending up to $132 billion. The DOD would get about 52 percent of that figure, while the NIH would get about 22 percent and the DHS would get about 1 percent. DHS's proposed budget for next year includes about $407 million for biological countermeasure R&D.
Koizumi has faith that funding will last, though, saying: "When we were attacked with airplanes, we knew how it was done. But we still don't know who [is responsible] for the anthrax attacks or how it was done." He added, "I think if there's another anthrax attack, all bets are off - more money will be put into this."
Also, the Bush administration has shown a commitment by appropriating $5.6 billion over the next decade to pay for Project BioShield, in advance of the legislation passing both chambers of Congress.
The House version of BioShield, passed in a 421-2 vote last summer, is expected to pass the Senate in the next couple of months. (See BioWorld Today, July 23, 2003.)
BioShield would guarantee firms a market for countermeasures, but does not provide companies with tax incentives, adequate research and development funding, clarity on intellectual property rights or indemnity protection.
Some of those issues are expected to be resolved in BioShield II, legislation Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) will submit after the first version passes. (See BioWorld Today, March 10, 2004.)