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Preventive Medicine

The threat of bioterror looms large, and biotech firms need federal support to confront it.

President George W. Bush has said that the United States will require nothing short of a "bioshield" to deter, deflect, and defend itself against bioterrorism. He has pledged $6 billion to build it. A boon to the life sciences industries? Not necessarily. Here�s why.

The immediate defense against bioterrorism in the United States and the United Kingdom has so far amounted to little more than new batches of slightly modified old recipes for smallpox and anthrax vaccines. This is an expedient thing to do, of course, as new medicines will take time to develop. But the U.S. government has identified 19 primary biological threats, including smallpox, anthrax, plague, Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers, yellow fever, tularemia, brucellosis, Q fever, outline toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. A bioshield would (at a minimum) require an effective diagnostic, at least one vaccine, and an antidote for each of these scourges.

The first and second steps of building the bioshield—funding basic research and training emergency service personnel so that they can respond to an outbreak—are already under way, but they are moot without two additional, more politically controversial, steps. This is where the life sciences industries get into trouble.

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