Study suggests skew in favor of bioterrorism-related funding

A recent study concluded that federal support for health security research is heavily skewed towards preparing for a bioterrorism related attack.

The study, which was conducted by the RAND Corporation and appears in the journal Health Affairs, is billed as the first inventory of national health security research funded by civilian agencies of the U.S. government.

The findings point to recent events like Hurricane Sandy, tornadoes in the U.S. Midwest and the occurrence of major earthquakes around the world to highlight the need to make the U.S. health system more responsive to a wider array of potential disasters. RAND concluded that monster storms and attacks with conventional munitions have not received proper priority.

"Although disaster preparedness requires active involvement of the private and public sectors, the federal government is the primary sponsor of the basic and applied health research needed to develop new technology and strategies to prepare for and respond to large-scale disasters," Dr. Art Kellermann, the study's senior author, said. "Our study suggests the current mix of federally-funded national health security research projects may not be ideally configured for achieving the broad preparedness goals that face our nation."

Kellermann and his team identified federally sponsored studies by seven non-defense agencies whose research addressed efforts to protect the public from large-scale public health threats, both natural and manmade. They identified 1,593 unique research projects undertaken over a 13-year period, with most conducted between 2003 and 2010, when there was robust funding for health security research and before the creation of a National Health Security Strategy.

More than 66 percent of the projects addressed biological threats, including bioterrorism, foodborne illness, pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases. Fewer than 10 percent were directed towards natural disasters. The remaining projects addressed chemical, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats.

The study concluded that existing priorities also favor basic laboratory research, which might reflect the role of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Turning basic research into actionable practice or evaluating promising new strategies received less emphasis.

RAND recommended the employment of a risk-based approach to health security research spending to ensure that the probability of a threat occurring, the magnitude of damage it could inflict, and the availability of countermeasures to limit or reduce its consequences are taken into account when funding levels are determined.

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