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  • September 2014
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Playing Politics with the Anthrax Vaccine

Link to original article by Leslie Paige here:

The anthrax attacks of October, 2001 may seem like a distant memory to many Americans, but the incidents created widespread alarm, prompting a debate within the U.S. government over how to better protect the nation from the critical threat of chemical and biological weapons attacks.

Even though there is an available, proven anthrax vaccine, some federal officials and members of Congress have insisted on pushing for a next generation vaccine.  This has led to a struggle over who should produce it and how the massive federal contracts should be awarded.  Though President Obama promised to wage a war on both congressional earmarking and wasteful government spending, the administration’s recent actions fail on both counts.  The latest skirmish includes the award of a sole-source contract to produce a next generation anthrax vaccine to a recipient with questionable experience in producing vaccine, but powerful political allies.

In February, 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), issued a request for proposal (RFP) for 25 million doses of anthrax vaccine for the Strategic National Stockpile.  Several companies were bidding on the contract, when suddenly, on December 7, 2009 the RFP was summarily cancelled without explanation.  Three weeks later, on December 29, while most of official Washington was deep in its holiday interregnum, HHS quickly and quietly awarded “a modification” to one company, PharmAthene, to produce the anthrax vaccine.  The contract was estimated to be worth approximately $78.4 million.

An HHS spokesperson at the time dismissed criticism of the unusual move by claiming that the Annapolis-based PharmAthene had been a contractor on the anthrax vaccine since 2003, so the modification was only a technical adjustment.  In fact, PharmAthene itself had not been working on the anthrax vaccine; it had acquired a British company, Avecia, which had had an anthrax research contract since 2003.  That rhetorical sleight of hand hid the fact that the “modification” amounted to the award of a sole-source contract to the politically-connected PharmAthene.

A March 2, 2010 FOXNews.com article by James Rosen noted that “The decision by the Obama administration to ‘modify’ the original Bush-era contract with Avecia, first reported by the Weekly Standard, came at a propitious time for PharmAthene.  The company notified the Securities and Exchange Commission last year that if it did not receive a substantial anthrax vaccine award, ‘we likely will need to curtail our operations significantly and we may be placed at a competitive disadvantage in the biodefense industry.  The HHS announcement on Dec. 29 suggested this was a key factor in its decision. ‘Enabling the continued work will also maintain a properly balanced sources of suppliers…to achieve industrial mobilization in case of an emergency,’ the announcement said.”

On March 3, 2010, one of the competitors in the original bid for the anthrax vaccine, Rockville-based Emergent BioSolutions, Inc., filed an appeal with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claiming that the award was improper.  The GAO issued a ruling on June 8, 2010, upholding the contract award to PharmAthene.

Perhaps more troubling is the larger issue of government waste through a flawed strategy in which the federal government is putting its resources in the wrong place.

The current vaccine, BioThrax, is the only FDA-approved vaccine to prevent anthrax infection.  More than 10 million doses have been administered to military personnel over the past decade.  The next generation vaccine is more than eight years away from being approved.  In order to ensure that there are adequate doses of the licensed anthrax vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile to protect the American people, the federal government must take immediate steps to fulfill its 75 million dose requirement.

A related issue is why the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue an experimental vaccine when there are other biological threats that have yet to be addressed.  Dedicating scarce taxpayer dollars to an experimental vaccine when the FDA-approved vaccine is a proven solution seems unwise from a fiscal perspective.  The federal government should redirect its resources to further protect the American people from all potential forms of bioterrorism.

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