Skip to Content

News Analysis: Biodefense Boondoggle?

Government grants for biodefense research have skyrocketed since the 2001 anthrax attacks; is it too much of a good thing?

Last month, the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease (NIAID) announced $125 million in planned funding for the construction of five to eight Regional Biocontainment Laboratories. These facilities would provide safe spaces in which to research dangerous bacteria and viruses, particularly those considered likely to be used as bioterror agents. The labs are just one part of a torrent of biodefense spending that has surged since anthrax letter-attacks killed five people in 2001.

But voices are now starting to be heard above the fear-induced din that this spending may not be the wisest use of the country’s biotechnology resources.

New lab space has become a particular target for biodefense critics. If funded, the new labs would supplement two National Biocontainment Laboratories and nine other regional labs, as well as eight Regional Centers of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. The two national labs, to be built at Boston University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, would have containment areas providing the highest level of physical and biological containment-meeting criteria known as Biosafety Level-4, or BSL-4. Such BSL-4 facilities are reserved for research on diseases, such as Ebola, for which there are neither vaccines nor treatments. The regional labs would meet the less stringent BSL-2 and BSL-3 safety standards. In addition to these spaces, NIAID is planning to build two BSL-4 labs for its employees, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, the Army, and possibly the U.S. Department of Agriculture all have plans to build additional BSL-4 lab space.

“It’s hard to say that this is a bad thing,” says Stephanie Loranger, biology issues director for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to the responsible use of science and technology. “Any amount of research into infectious diseases helps us understand these diseases and helps the public health community.” But, she adds, “it’s difficult to know how many [labs] is enough or how many is too many.” Concerns include the ongoing expense of maintaining and running the specialized labs, as well as security, given the proliferation of locations for, and people who have access to, agents that can be used as weapons.

Many believe the additional labs are necessary, though. “We’re not overdoing the BSL-4 lab space,” says C. J. Peters, a noted virologist who has worked in BSL-4 labs at both the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and the CDC, and who now runs a BSL-4 for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Peters notes that the Department of Defense and CDC labs have different missions than the planned National Biocontainment Laboratories, focusing on vaccine research and disease outbreak response, respectively. “We’re playing catch up,” in terms of basic knowledge about diseases like Ebola and SARS, he says. “To have additional BSL-4 space over and above DoD and CDC is extremely important.”

The dispute over biotech funding goes beyond new biocontainment facilities. “There is a general feeling out there that we’ve spent too much or are planning on spending too much money on biodefense,” says Loranger. Critics point out that while Congress has provided new money especially for biodefense research, the percentage of funds earmarked for other biomedical studies is decreasing. “If funding for all research increased proportionately, this wouldn’t be a problem,” says William Margolin, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. As it is, he says, “outstanding researchers in basic biology are getting squeezed at the expense of sometimes lower quality research on biodefense.” In fact, Loranger notes, the number of grants the National Institutes of Health funds has already decreased 3 percent since the 2001 anthrax attacks. The result: fewer scientists and fewer different studies are being funded.

The arguments aren’t merely academic. “These efforts are going have to be funded at a certain level to maintain these labs,” says Loranger. “And you will see a decrease in other public health and basic research initiatives being funded.” That could spell big trouble in the long term.

“There is no doubt that [the growth in biodefense spending] has been a boon for a lot of microbiology and microbiologists,” says Stanford University microbiologist Stanley Falkow, who is known for his work on plague and tularemia-both possible bioterror agents. Falkow worries, however, that other good research could be neglected. “If the amount of money available for funding gets tighter and the decision is, do we fund something under one of these programs, like bioterror, or do we fund something that’s in basic research of E. coli, that the bioterror is going to get the funding.” That, he says, could be a mistake, as many of the discoveries now being applied to bioterror agents were originally made in so-called paradigm organisms like E. coli-nondangerous bacteria with characteristics similar to a variety of other microbes.

Another concern is biologists turning away from research on bacteria and viruses not considered bioterror threats in order to cash in on biodefense money. “I’m afraid people might start to ignore the global infectious disease problem, which I think is a far greater problem,” Falkow says. He notes that until 9/11, the CIA believed that as far as national security, the U.S. got more benefit from trying to eradicate infectious diseases than from working on defenses against bioterror. The reasoning was simple: rampant disease in developing countries stymies economic growth, which leaves the populace dissatisfied and more likely to breed terrorists.

Decreased attention to non-bioterror agents could become a problem even in the U. S., Falkow notes. He specifically cites the need to attend to growing threats such as community-acquired, antibiotic-resistant Staphylococci, which causes problems ranging from boils to pneumonia and life-threatening bloodstream infections. “Not as many people are working on [Staphylococci] now as there were,” Falkow says. Like many bioterror agents caught up in the funding vortex, staph is difficult to grow and manipulate. The not-unreasonable attitude researchers take, Falkow says, is “you might as well go work on something where there’s a lot of money.” The real problem, both Loranger and Falkow contend, is that there has been little public discussion of how much money needs to be spent on biodefense and where the money should go.

Even proponents of this favored branch of biological research agree. “The enormous amount of money that’s been put into biodefense could go into other things,” says virologist Peters. “And you could argue about where we ought to be using the money. I don’t think we’ve had a really good national argument about this.” Without that kind of debate, the United States could be left high and dry in its fight against infectious disease.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.