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Center News

Experts Call for Coordinated Effort to Develop Drugs and Vaccines to Fight Bioterrorism

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- October 12, 2004 -- A report released today finds wide agreement among experts from the pharmaceutical industry, government, and academia that the danger posed by bioterrorism and natural epidemics is "profoundly serious" and that the nation is ill-prepared to develop the vaccines and medicines that will be needed to fight these threats.

Researchers from the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and the Sarnoff Corporation interviewed 30 thought leaders from industry, government, and academia who are experts in biomedical research and drug and vaccine development to elicit their views on the current status of the nation's capacity to develop biodefense countermeasures and on steps to improve this process. The report, Taking the Measure of Countermeasures, appears in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

Several important themes emerged from these interviews:

  • An infectious disease epidemic -- whether naturally occurring or intentional -- is virtually certain, and the consequences of such an outbreak would be grave.
  • Serious shortfalls remain in the nation's ability to detect and respond to a biological attack.
  • The nation needs a strategy to develop drugs and vaccines against infectious agents and that strategy must engage government, industry, and the biomedical research and development community.
  • A new organization is needed to serve as an "honest broker" to manage this strategy.
  • BioShield is an important first step -- but only a first step -- in engaging the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and is not sufficient to fully engage industry or to produce the countermeasures (i.e., drugs and vaccines) that will ultimately be needed.

Most of the experts concluded that there is currently no plan to develop drugs and vaccines for biodefense. Individuals were concerned that the efforts so far have lacked coordination, were too limited in scope, or focused too much on specific threat organisms. Many believe that an organism-by-organism approach is not an effective long-term strategy for developing drugs and vaccines and that the overall drug development process must be shortened.

Many of the experts responding painted a stark picture of the status quo. One expert stated that "Any high school student can create genetically engineered organisms; so I think they will come. Why would anyone use anthrax to attack a civilian population and not make it antibiotic resistant?" Given that it can take more than 10 years to develop a drug that can treat a new bug, mounting an effective response to a new bio-threat could take years. An interviewee commenting on this stated: "Rapid development of new drugs is a key technology that we don't have yet."

Some of the experts said that the current planning and coordination of biodefense measures is inadequate and needs to be improved, and many believed the federal government should take the lead: "It's up to government to sponsor interactions between the different industries and assemble the units like a jigsaw puzzle into a complete entity that can deal with everything and speed up the process."
Some of the interviewees felt that an new organization - whether a government office or a quasi-government agency - needs to be set up to mediate between government and private industry and serve as an "honest broker" among all of the participating players: "Someone has to create a master plan and talk Congress into funding it."

A complete copy of Taking the Measure of Countermeasures is available at the Biosecurity and Bioterrorism website and on the UPMC Center for Biosecurity's website.

The Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) works to prevent the development and use of biological weapons, to catalyze advances in science and governance that diminish the power of biological weapons as agents of mass destruction, and to lessen the human suffering that would result if prevention fails.

Sarnoff Corporation produces innovations in electronic, biomedical and information technology that generate new products and services for clients worldwide. Founded in 1942 as RCA Laboratories, Sarnoff develops breakthroughs in ICs, lasers, and imagers; drug discovery, manufacture and delivery; digital TV and video for security, surveillance, and entertainment; high-performance networking; and wireless communications. Its history includes the development of color TV, the liquid-crystal display, and the disposable hearing aid, and a leadership role in creating the U.S. digital and HDTV standard. Sarnoff also founds new companies to bring its technologies to market. It is a subsidiary of SRI International.



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