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United States launches three biodefence centres

Texas A&M University moves to the forefront of the US biodefense effort.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today awarded contracts for the creation of three new centres tasked with responding to the threat of future pandemics and biological attacks. To be based in Maryland, North Carolina and Texas, the three centres are comprised of academic and industry consortia whose role it will be to hasten the development and manufacturing of vaccines and medications in the event of an emerging biological threat.

“Establishing these centers represents a dramatic step forward in ensuring that the United States can produce life-saving countermeasures quickly and nimbly,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement on 18 June. “They will improve our ability to protect Americans’ health in an emergency and help fill gaps in preparedness so that our nation can respond to known or unknown threats.”

The three Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing are the first tangible result of a review concluded by HHS in 2010, which highlighted major improvements needed to effectively fight disease outbreaks — like those of H1N1 in 2009 or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 — or a bioterrorism attack, such as the anthrax attacks of 2001.

The contracts, amounting to roughly US$400 million, represent a range of academic and private partnerships as well as partnerships between large pharmaceutical companies and small biotechnology firms. “We noted that many small companies with great ideas don’t see their products make it because they need a lot of technical help,” says Nicole Lurie, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

The contracts include:

  • $163 million over eight years to Emergent BioSolutions in Maryland to expand their lab facilities in Baltimore and Gaithersburg. Emergent collaborates with researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, and the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
  • Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics will receive $60 million over four years, in addition to previous HHS investments, to expand their laboratory facilities in Holly Springs, North Carolina, to include a pandemic flu centre and an emerging-disease centre. They’ll work with two nearby institutions: North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Duke University in Durham.
  • The largest award — $176 million over five years — went to the Texas A&M University System in College Station, Texas (pictured), and will go towards lab improvements and research among its 27 public and private partner organizations. Texas A&M will also construct a centre devoted to pandemic flu research. The university has also secured $109 million from private and academic partners and will receive $40 million in state funding.

HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will oversee all three centres, with the option to renew their contracts for up to 25 years.

“On an everyday basis these centres are going to be helping other developers of medical counter-measures for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, on the same hand if there’s an emergency then we’ve got to be able to respond to things like pandemic influenza or other threats,” says BARDA’s director, Robin Robinson. “If it was 2003, and the centres were around, then we would be making SARS vaccines.”

HHS projects that the centres will be able to produce 25% of the country’s pandemic flu vaccine supply within four months of an outbreak, with the infrastructure in place by 2014 or 2015.

“What keeps me up at night, like many others, is the unknown,” says Robinson. “These centres address known and unknown threats with the latest technology to develop and manufacture vaccines and biologically based medicines providing more nimble and flexible response capability to produce more and better products.”

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    Lawrence Connolly said:

    Inasmuch as the US Dept of Health and Human Services has set forth to correct a deplorable biodefense deficiency, far more intelligent steps needs to be taken to make biodefense research & development employment opportunities available. The US government’s gateway for military related positions is archaic and dysfunctional. Talented individuals with much needed biotechnology knowledge and skills are routinely screened by poorly designed computer algorithms that eliminate viable candidates for lack of “wet” laboratory experience when the reality is that biodefense labs are predominantly virtual. The situation is compounded by a justifiably protective military mentality whose personnel who follow orders to protect the biodefense facility from espionage but fail to question the viability of the computer screening mechanism as as means of gaining valuable biodefense employees. Perhaps these three new facilities will implement hiring policies that are not as computer algorithm dependent but rely on thinking.

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