Bioterrorism Spending | Citizens Against Government Waste

Bioterrorism Spending

The WasteWatcher

After the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of five people exposed to anthrax spores sent through the mail in 2001, the federal government began pouring billions of dollars into biodefense research and development.  However, throwing money at a problem does not guarantee a solution; there must be proper follow-through and oversight to make sure the money is spent wisely. 

The largest effort is Project Bioshield, which was created to encourage development of new vaccines and drugs to fight biological threats.  Although $5.6 billion has been expended, the project has suffered from numerous failures and setbacks typified by the $900 million initiative for an anthrax vaccine.  Only small, untested, and unstable companies bid to develop and manufacture the product because of liability concerns.  Instead of awarding the contract to several of these companies, thereby increasing the chance for success, one received all of the money.  When that company’s attempt to make a faster-acting, safer vaccine resulted in shorter shelf life, another company stepped in to try to sell its older version, resulting in a political battle over funding and delaying progress even more.  The entire process is far behind schedule and no new versions of the vaccine have been added to the government’s stockpile.

A bipartisan group of senators and representatives recently moved to fill the void in biodefense oversight.  In an October 30 letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General, 23 legislators called for a comprehensive report to assess the more than $18 billion spent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on efforts to detect and deter biological threats since 9/11.  They noted that “Having reached the fifth anniversary of the anthrax attacks, we believe Congress and the Administration would benefit from a comprehensive assessment by the Government Accountability Office of currently deployed airborne or environmental biological threat detection technologies and those that are planned or under development.” 

Congress asked the GAO to examine the effectiveness of biological detection technologies, methodology for determining effectiveness, plans for developing new technologies, and utilization of resources past, current, and future.  Recognizing the complexity and breadth of its request, the signatories indicated an anticipation of multiple reports. 

The congressional letter also cited a January 2006 GAO report that criticized DHS’s cost-benefit analysis of the purchase of new radiation detection monitors for ports as unsound and incomplete.  Some elected officials, political candidates, and media personalities have called for the inspection of every piece of cargo that goes through each port of entry.  The argument makes for a good sound bite, but if implemented, could bring trade to a virtual standstill.  As the GAO found, the technology is not yet accurate enough or cost-effective.  Calling for comprehensive but completely unworkable solutions is an irresponsible way to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. 

On December 9, one of the final acts of the lame duck Congress was to pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.  The legislation will establish the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the lead agency to react to bioterrorist attacks and disease outbreaks as well as create a central authority within HHS to coordinate response.  An addition $1 billion was allocated to help prepare for and develop responses to biological threats on the state and local level.

Congress’s commitment to oversight does not match its commitment to spending money to protect the country from another terrorist attack.  As Congress prepares to spend another $1 billion on biodefense technology, a thorough review of its effectiveness should be the first order of business.

  -- Alexa Moutevelis

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The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste