In Box

Biological Weapons

Biological Weapons

After 9/11, U.S. spending on defenses against biological attacks got a shot in the arm. Between 2001 and 2006, the budget for biodefense medical research and development at the National Institutes of Health increased from $50 million to $1.8 billion. Five years later, it turns out there might be some unlikely beneficiaries of this bounty: poor people in the developing world.

The extra money being poured into bioterror preparedness could result in a revolution in global public health — to the benefit of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. New vaccines, medicines, and techniques designed to deal with diseases unleashed by terrorists may also combat naturally occurring outbreaks. Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a former assistant secretary of energy, argues that "if we do what is necessary for biodefense… we could conceivably in a generation eliminate large-scale, lethal epidemics of infectious disease everywhere."

Vaccines are notoriously unprofitable, so pharmaceutical companies have often shown little interest in developing them. But fears of a biological attack have led the U.S. government to fund new vaccine breakthroughs for ebola, the Marburg virus, and Lassa fever. This money will also speed the development of dengue fever and vibrio cholera vaccines. Scientists are also excited about the possibilities stemming from the military’s bigger budgets. Steven Block, a Stanford University scientist who has consulted for the U.S. government on national security, says that "the military has, literally, billions of dollars burning a hole in its pocket for spending on things biomedical." He’s confident that any benefits will be shared with the public at large: "This doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that the military would develop and then keep top secret."

Still, O’Toole frets that the research might be conducted as "fortress America, with a very narrow focus on countering weapons," limiting the public- health benefits. Also, it costs more than a billion dollars to bring a new vaccine to market. That means that the level of success "comes down to how wisely they do or don’t spend this money," says Block. Ironically, sharing these medical advances with the world could help win the war they were designed to fight in the first place.