TR: What’s wrong with our current efforts to protect ourselves against anthrax and other bioweapons? And what do we need to do?
Peters: We need to improve how we develop drugs to treat the effects of bioweapons. Our pharmaceutical industry and national health research systems aren’t set up to do this. In the past, if we had a disease, the CDC went out and defined the threat. They would tell you, Here’s polio, or, Here’s measles, and so on. Then the NIAID [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] would develop the science to make a vaccine or other remedy possible. And then industry picked it up and manufactured it because it was profitable, and it was the thing to do. With bioweapons, the CDC doesn’t know what the threat is any more than anybody else. We have the intelligence community telling us, and we’re not used to that. The National Institutes of Health is sponsoring a lot of research, but industry is not going to pick these things up. It’s just not going to. But let’s don’t beat up on the pharmaceutical industry. The industry was set up to make profits; it will spend a lot more effort making Viagra than thinking about anthrax. So we need a model where NIAID can contract directly or indirectly with industry or somehow find a way to motivate industry to pick these items up and actually develop them.
Inhalation anthrax is a great example of this; it’s a very rare disease naturally, so there haven’t been any drugs made specifically to treat it. Anthrax can be treated in early stages with antibiotics developed for more common infections. But anthrax toxins go on acting after we treat the bugs themselves. We don’t have any approved treatments for those toxins. Research at Harvard and several other places has indicated some of the ways to go: striking at the toxins, binding them up, neutralizing them. We should sort through those approaches and get some of them out on the shelf where physicians can use them.
TR: What changes would help us better develop drugs against bioweapons?
Peters: The good news is NIH is getting a huge boost in funding for biological-defense-related work. And [NIAID director Anthony] Fauci has made a very important statement: there will be an effort to have financing that provides a stable and adequate financial motivation for industry. I think this is the right path, although it may need either more bucks than we are ready to ante up or even some sort of stick, saying, You do it, or we will go outside the paradigm. Meaning that the federal government would manufacture the remedies itself, spawn new companies, or otherwise influence the big drug companies to undertake the mission.