Scientists race to create bioweapon vaccines

Scientists in private sector and university labs are attempting to create vaccines for biological warfare agents before attacks can be perpetrated or big industries can whisk away funding opportunities for research and development.  

While most medical countermeasures stockpiled by the government have been engineered to combat anthrax and smallpox, scientists at labs like Maryland’s Dynport Vaccine Co., the University of Vermont, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are developing countermeasures for other bioterror agents, National Defense Magazine reports.

Maryland’s Dynport Vaccine Co., has contracts with the Pentagon for the development of botulinum neurotoxin and plague vaccines.

“(Bot-toxin) shuts down your breathing apparatus and it is necessary to use artificial ventilation and supportive therapy,” Robert House, DVC's president, said, according to National Defense Magazine. “While death certainly is a bad outcome, when people become incapacitated in large numbers it creates a huge burden on the healthcare industry. That would make us more susceptible to other diseases because now all of our medical resources are being taken up.”

Plague was previously used as a weapon when the Japanese dropped ceramic bombs containing fleas with bubonic plague during World War II.

Stephen Smiley, an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Vermont, and a team of researchers are working on a vaccine that would protect the military and the public from weaponized plague. His team is developing safe, life-attenuated vaccines and antigens to activate T-cells and trigger protective cellular responses. Smiley said that vaccines may be the most effective countermeasure.

“I think the government prefers therapeutics over vaccines,” Smiley said, according to National Defense Magazine. “They appear to want broad-spectrum therapeutics that work against multiple threats. However, broad-acting agents are difficult to produce and antibiotic-resistant threats exist, so vaccines may be our only viable option.”

While there are multiple bioterror threats to the United States, anthrax is believed to be the largest threat.

“The government has prioritized what it thinks are the top threats and it has to work within budgets,” Daniel J. Abdun-Nabi, president of Emergent Biosolutions, Inc., said, according to National Defense Magazine, “It has to deal with the ones that are most weaponizable and easiest to deploy. In that respect, anthrax is clearly number one on the list.”

Because the government is essentially the only customer for these countermeasures, some companies wonder how the business model of the smaller companies involved will play out.

“As many of the active participants are small-scale and reliant on outside funding to maintain operations, reduced credit options could force them out of business,” Business Insights wrote in a late 2009 report on the biodefense industry and its future, according to National Defense Magazine. “(A) single serious bioterrorist incident in the U.S. could spur another round of government spending as happened after the 2001 anthrax attacks.”