President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2013 contains mixed news for the US biodefence effort, which came under heavy criticism last year for failing to deliver treatments against biodefence threats despite spending some US$60 billion over the previous decade.
According to figures compiled by Crystal Franco of the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC in Baltimore, Maryland, winners include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and three agencies falling under the umbrella of the US Department of Health and Human Services: the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Losers include military biological-defence development efforts and public-health programmes at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Under the president’s request, the DHS is slated to receive an $11-million boost for its controversial BioWatch programme, bringing the programme’s total 2013 spending to $125 million. BARDA’s budget would grow from $415 million to $547 million, including a $415-million ‘supplement’ from the BioShield Special Reserve Fund. The FDA would receive $346 million for biodefence — about equal to last year — plus $18 million to begin building a new Life Sciences–Biodefense Laboratory complex in White Oak, Maryland. And biodefence funding at the NIH — like the overall NIH budget — would stay flat at $1.3 billion.
“It’s good news that there is more money for BARDA, and no significant cuts to basic science at NIH or to regulatory science at FDA,” says Randall Larsen, founding director of the WMD Center, which last year issued a report card critical of the US biodefence effort to date. The centre and other analysts have long contended that BARDA is too underfunded to properly do its job of ushering promising ‘countermeasures’ through to FDA approval, and that the FDA has been a choke point in the biodefence effort owing to lack of clarity about how it will evaluate and approve biodefence treatments.
Larsen expressed concern that much of BARDA’s budget is slated to come out of the BioShield fund, which exists to lure companies into the biodefence effort in the absence of a significant private market in the field. However, Larsen said, “some could argue that there’s nothing in the queue right now to be purchased” with BioShield funds, “so let’s prime the pump by boosting BARDA.”
Losers in this budget would include the CDC, which is slated for cuts in state and local preparedness programmes and in the Strategic National Stockpile, which would take a $47-million dip to $486 million. The president’s request would also cut the Department of Defense’s medical biological-defence programme by $257 million, leaving its funding at $347.9 million, by eliminating money for basic and applied research and advanced development.
Critics had said that elements of the Pentagon’s biodefence research effort, such as the Transformational Medical Technologies programme, were ineffective; TMT’s early-stage research efforts have now been stopped or folded into new programmes focused on areas such as biosurveillance, diagnostics and advanced manufacturing capabilities.
But Philip Russell, a former director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and adviser to the US Department of Health and Human Services, said that it was a mistake to cut military biodefence research money at the expense of other funding sources.
“Taking money out of the military research budget and leaving NIH funded at $1.3 billion even though it hasn’t produced a single countermeasure is pretty tragic,” Russell says.
The president also requested a boost for the DHS’s science and technology directorate, from $668 million to $831.5 million, but Franco notes that the directorate’s budget is “very opaque,” so it’s difficult to tell how that increase will affect biodefence programmes. The budget also commits no funding to construct the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, which has not yet been built.
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