The Bioterror Boondoggle

10 June 2004

Scientists who conduct research on viruses depend heavily on outside sources of funding to staff and supply their laboratories. One of the major sources of funding for independent research is the National Institutes of Health. Funds for research are allocated through a grant mechanism in which investigators submit detailed proposals for the work they wish to carry out. The proposals are reviewed by a panel of experts and graded, and the best proposals are funded.

This type of NIH-funded investigator-initiated basic research has proven enormously successful since the 1950s. The best innovation comes when scientists decide what they wish to work on. From the most obscure beginnings have emerged discoveries that have revolutionized medicine. For example, research on bacteria and viruses that infect bacteria lead to the development of recombinant DNA technology. This technology forms the basis for many of today’s blockbuster drugs and diagnostic tests.

As a consequence of the release of Bacillus anthracis (a bacterium) in the U.S. in 2001, the NIH has shifted some of its resources towards work on viruses, fungi, and bacteria that could be used for bioterrorism. In addition, the NIH has adopted what it calls a ‘roadmap‘, in which it identified the most important areas of medical research that investigators should focus on.

I have problems with both of these issues, e.g. diverting NIH funds to bioterrorism research, and establishing a ‘roadmap’. A few months ago, Alan Dove, a freelance science writer, asked my opinion on the recent shift in focus at NIH, and snippets of my responses have appeared in this week’s Nature Medicine.

My thoughts on bioterrorism research will need a separate post. Meanwhile, here is my complete response to Alan Dove’s question:

“The first problem is that NIH has never been good at deciding what to work on. Drugs and vaccines are fine; but as far as basic research goes, who is to say what should be done? The best work comes from letting scientists follow their own paths. Find a good scientist, give ‘em money, and you’ll get good science. That’s where recombinant DNA came from, if I recall. In today’s climate, the NIH is not likely to put a high priority on, say, phage research; but one could argue that it might still have unseen surprises that are widely applicable. I don’t think anyone is smart enough to predict what to work on, the current NIH leadership included.

“On the other hand, I think it’s great if the NIH wants to fund development of drugs and vaccines that are third-world problems and not likely to get the attention of US pharma. In fact, I think all drug and vaccine development should be out of the private sector, but I understand that is heretical and not a capitalistic view. Drug and vaccine development should not be driven by profit, but by need. The only way to deal with this is to have the government do the work – at the NIH, or extramurally.

“I’m not worried about diverting a good part of the NIH budget for these purposes. The effect will certainly be to divert money away from investigator-initiated research, e.g. RO1 grants. For the next five years, it will be hard to get grants; but everything cycles and I expect that at some point it will become less difficult.

“I do think it is important to be smart about what the NIH decides to direct its money towards. I’m not sure that scientific logic prevails; probably politics are playing too great a role. Politicians need to tell their constituents how they spend their tax dollars; it’s easy to point out a shiny new jet fighter, but not so easy to point out what the NIH does. Hence, ‘directed research’. Here everyone, we are making an AIDS vaccine, or a TB drug. But pouring money into ‘biodefense’ research is just a load of crap. We really have to focus only on anthrax and smallpox – nothing else is likely to work very well and I defy anyone to engineer a virus or bacterium to be more lethal than it already is. Biodefense research is just another political ploy and a waste of NIH dollars.”