WaPo reports major obstacles getting an antidote to anthrax out:

A little more than a year after the October 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and temporarily emptied the halls of Congress, Human Genome Sciences had created a treatment that seemed to protect against anthrax — for rats, at least. The timing was fortunate. A month later, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced Project BioShield, a $6 billion plan for a medical arsenal against bioterrorism. Human Genome Science’s anthrax treatment, which it calls Abthrax, seemed to be a perfect candidate. “There was tremendous enthusiasm to get this product moved forward as quickly as possible,” said David C. Stump, senior vice president for research and development.

A year later, the scientists have moved the drug forward quickly through tests on rabbits, monkeys and human volunteers. But the mood in the lab is no longer enthusiastic. Project BioShield is bogged down in Congress and the company has yet to get the government to purchase the drug. Executives say they are considering shelving it and putting the money and manpower back into inventing treatments for which there is a definite market, for common diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and hepatitis C.

Human Genome Sciences’ experience shows how uncertain the new business of biodefense is. In the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration pleaded with drug companies to develop medicines against such diseases as anthrax, smallpox and botulism. To lure the companies away from developing drugs for cancer and heart disease, the government did something unprecedented: It promised to buy the medicines. But dozens of firms that rushed into the business say they have found that not even the president has the power to turn an almost unbearably risky market into a going business.

After moving swiftly through the House of Representatives this summer, the Project BioShield legislation stalled in the Senate. Resistance came from senators such as Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who said he worries that soldiers might be compelled to use experimental treatments and that the law would permit noncompetitive bidding on some contracts.

The approach to treating anthrax infections that Human Genome Sciences is taking is fraught with uncertainty. The drugs are expensive to make; terrorists may be able to engineer anthrax that is immune to the treatment; and, because it requires an injection, the drug could be impractical after a widespread attack. “It’s not clear they are the best investment for the country right now,” said Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The industry had expected the Project BioShield bill to pass in August. Congressional aides say that if the bill passes, it won’t be until early next year.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.