A move in Congress to cut up to $2 billion from bioterrorism prevention "will drive a stake through the heart of America's fledgling biodefense efforts," former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) told President Obama in a letter released Tuesday.
"It will require your intervention to avoid a self-inflicted wound to America's national security," Graham said in the letter written with former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.). The two chaired the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which in January gave the Obama administration a failing grade on bioterrorism prevention efforts.
Bioterrorism experts say the cut is an example of how the Obama White House is failing to thoroughly address the threat of a biological attack, which they say could kill 400,000 Americans and do $2 trillion in economic damage.
The probability of such an event is low, the experts acknowledge, but they said the failure to plan for it reflected the same lack of imagination that presaged the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The House passed a war spending bill July 2 that cut $2 billion from funds for drugs, vaccines and other treatments designed to thwart bioterrorism and pandemic flu. The White House on Monday essentially endorsed the cut by questioning the effectiveness of the bioterrorism fund.
On the block is Project BioShield, a pot of money to buy lifesaving drugs and vaccines. The money was set aside as a guarantee to private companies that if they produced the medicines, government funds would be available to buy them. Companies often have little incentive to develop drugs and vaccines geared toward bioterrorism agents, for which there is ordinarily little demand.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the government has been dissatisfied with Project BioShield and is redesigning a system creating incentives for private drug companies to produce drugs and vaccines faster.
"BioShield has demonstrated limited success in providing incentive for private-sector developers and has not provided a robust pipeline of medical countermeasures," Shapiro said in an e-mail.
The administration says its new approach is paying off. The Department of Health and Human Services is selecting high-priority drugs it will develop to respond to chemical, nuclear and biological threats, including new treatments for radiation exposure, according to an administration official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
But Graham and Talent wrote in their letter: "If the BioShield program is defunded now, before your new strategy is even given a chance to work, we will have to find a grade lower than an 'F' for our next report card."
Project BioShield was started in 2004 with $5.6 billion to be spent over 10 years. So far, $2 billion has been spent.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Project BioShield has purchased 29 million doses of anthrax vaccine, 20 million doses of a new smallpox vaccine and 200,000 doses of botulism toxin treatment.