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The Bioshield is porous. Start again.

In the State of the Union address in January, President George W. Bush proposed his Project Bioshield, calling for a fivefold increase in the $1.3 billion budgeted to defend against biological attack. In July, the House approved the Bioshield Act of 2003. Representative Billy Tauzin (R: Louisiana) vowed the act would “spur research and development” by funding scientific discovery. The act would also empower the Secretary of Health and Human Services to dispense experimental drugs in an emergency “on a large-scale basis to millions of Americans.”

Sounds good. But, as explained in “The Looming Threat” on page 40 of Acumen, Issue 4, Bioshield may not be much of a defense at all. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security have pointed out that $6 billion is not much money given the scale of the threat. Treatments, of sorts, exist for anthrax and smallpox and perhaps 20 other bioterror agents, but conservative estimates place the number of potential agents somewhere between 70 and 80. Paul Redmond, the official charged with recommending what research to fund, has confessed to Congress that he cannot begin to brief legislators; he doesn�t know much. To which an outraged Representative Christopher Shays (R: Connecticut) remarked, “They�re basically admitting they�re useless.”

A real biological moat will require much more imagination—and much more money. An effective national biodefense must combine disease surveillance, vaccine and treatment availability, a robust public health care system, and strong governmental leadership. It also requires an entirely new system of defense procurement. Reform is insufficient to the task at hand.

At the moment, we are worse than defenseless. We think we are safer than we were before the Bioshield was touted—and we are not.



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By Invitation

Graham Allison, Ph.D.