August 23, 2002 - ASM Recommendations on Biodefense Research Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is writing to urge the House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee to restore the $263 million which the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Committee reallocated from the proposed FY 2003 biodefense funds in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) budget. ASM has followed closely America's efforts to detect and stop threatened bioterrorism since the tragic terrorist events of September 11 and the subsequent intentional release of anthrax spores. The Society is convinced that eliminating this amount of research funding from the $1.8 billion proposed for biodefense activities in FY 2003 would seriously retard the progress of the high priority NIAID research programs already underway. Although we recognize that the proposed increase of $1.5 billion for civilian biodefense research in the NIH budget is a significant increase in FY 2003, the cost to establish new research infrastructure to perform experiments with dangerous pathogens and to rapidly develop countermeasures requires a significant increase of this magnitude. A decrease of 18 percent will affect research and development activities that must be accomplished in a short period of time. ASM, which represents more than 40,000 scientists and health professionals concerned about such issues, wishes to remind Congress of the absolutely vital role that NIAID will undertake in protecting U.S. citizens from any intentional release of microbial pathogens.

As you know, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to become the lead research agency for civilian biodefense under the homeland defense plan, having been allocated in the Administration's FY 2003 budget request a significant $1.5 billion increase for bioterrorism-related research and development, up from the $275 million appropriated in FY 2002. This represents an additional, new focus on civilian biodefense beyond on-going military biodefense efforts through the Department of Defense. NIAID is the pivotal agency at NIH for infectious diseases and immunology, and as such is expected to spearhead our nation's counter-bioterrorism activities. The Senate Subcommittee's reduction in the biodefense funding request leaves NIAID with only about 82 percent of funding originally proposed for its biodefense research and development. This would seriously affect the NIH program already developed in collaboration with the Office of Homeland Security and the HHS Office of Public Health Preparedness, an aggressive and multifaceted effort that would be adversely affected by reduced funding.

This far-reaching program is based on robust research initiatives designed to develop countermeasures against such deadly pathogens as those that cause smallpox, anthrax, tularemia and plague. It includes expanded basic research on the physiology and genetics of potential microbial agents and the human immune system response to each of these agents, and, importantly, the accelerated discovery of new vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tests. Also included are measures to strengthen our national research infrastructure at both the intramural and extramural levels, to create up-to-date and safer research facilities. Central to these efforts will be establishment of a series of extramural Centers for Excellence for Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections, to provide specialized equipment and training to scientists across the country, which is critical to conducting research on highly dangerous pathogens. The Centers' personnel would assist with multidisciplinary research and help translate new knowledge into clinical applications. An integral component will be the use of grants to attract long-term interest and support from industry and academe in developing tools to detect, diagnose and combat diseases of particular concern. Anticipated benefits from the program will be broad-based and many, including new ways to fight other diseases related to public health problems, including tuberculosis, West Nile virus, malaria, and antimicrobial resistance.

ASM believes that this ambitious and well designed plan, which is now at a critical building stage in its development, would be substantially undercut by the Senate Subcommittee's reduced biodefense funding for NIAID. For example, rather than the anticipated four or five Centers of Excellence, only two or three could be established. Budget limitations also would impact the area of genomics, essential for identifying molecular targets and the first step towards bioinformatics. One-third fewer pathogens than planned for would be studied by 2008. Funding below that proposed also would cut in half the NIAID's efforts to build partnerships with industry and academe, those collaborations so essential to a comprehensive and nation-wide biodefense program. In a larger context, there would be fewer spin-offs into the understanding of other diseases and significant delays in efforts to transform laboratory-based knowledge into clinical applications. The entire effort against bioterrorism will suffer, both in terms of the speed in which progress is made against these threats and the scope of those diseases studied. Building solid and effective scientific research programs always involves well-planned, multi-layered programs and long-term commitment; a budget reduction below the amount proposed and planned for could damage both this nation's present and future defenses against bioterrorism.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. The ASM appreciates the support of Congress for NIH funding and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee in any way possible as it deliberates on the FY 2003 budget for the NIH.