Bioshield Boondoggle

Time Magazine has a fantastic article on the massive boondoggle that is the world of BioShield. In 2003, President Bush asked Congress for nearly $6 billion to pay drug companies so that they could develop vaccines for exotic diseases that terrorists might unleash on the country: Ebola, smallpox, plague. It turns out that most of that money went… well, nowhere:

BioShield hasn’t transformed much of anything besides expanding the federal bureaucracy. Most of the big pharmaceutical and biotech firms want nothing to do with developing biodefense drugs. The little companies that are vying for deals say they are being stymied by an opaque and glacially slow contracting process. The one big contract that has been awarded — for 75 million doses of a next-generation anthrax vaccine — is tangled in controversy.

With the industry’s profits under pressure, none of the big firms are keen on diverting research from potential blockbusters to drugs for exotic germs like Ebola and plague, which may be stockpiled and used only in an emergency. …

Public-health experts are also worried that money is flowing into terrorism-related medicine at the expense of more basic needs like hospital beds and respirators, which may be just as critical to saving lives in a crisis. And they are concerned that the government’s obsession with biodefense is distracting from research into infectious diseases. Last March, 758 microbiologists signed a petition to the NIAID, complaining about the “massive influx of funding” for bioterrorism agents like anthrax, tularemia and plague. The institute now spends nearly $1.7 billion on biodefense — up from just $42 million in 2001 — out of a $4.3 billion budget (although the biodefense funding hasn’t detracted from other research, according to the agency). Meanwhile, hardly any new antibiotics have been approved by the FDA in recent years, despite the fact that scientists have grown more concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “The big challenge is how we deal with epidemic infectious diseases, not anthrax,” says Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

So pretty much useless all around. That’s good to know. On the other hand, the threat of shadowy terrorists waging biological warfare on the United States has always sounded pretty implausible. If, say, some guy from Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria got ahold of smallpox and tried to spread it in the United States, he would almost certainly end up devastating Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria much, much more—poorer countries, after all, are poorly equipped to deal with plagues, far more so than the United States or other OECD countries are. Maybe the best defense against biological warfare is simply publicizing this fact far and wide…


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn’t fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation so we can keep on doing the type of journalism that 2018 demands.

Donate Now