Germ Research Gets Urgent; Bioterrorism Fuels Interest, Funding of Scientific Projects
Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Continuing bioterrorism scares are breathing new life into obscure scientific projects as the nation gropes for a way to defend itself from deadly microbes.
The sudden interest in microbiology is fueled by revelations such as the discovery of a mobile bioterrorism laboratory that traveled Iraqi highways.
A few thousand miles away, a South African court is revealing details of an apartheid-era contingency plan to use anthrax on black communities.
The U.S. government is waging an uphill battle against the tiny and nearly untraceable microbes of bioterrorism.
"If you can brew beer, you can make a bug," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said, recalling a warning from an FBI scientist on manufactured viruses.
The elusiveness of the bacteria spores and microscopic viruses is turning bioterrorism research into big business. Companies that focused on cures for cancer and Alzheimer's disease are finding bigger profits in vaccines, antidotes and other bug-fighting tools.
But the bioterrorism scare also is creating new fears for researchers, both in terms of safety and criminal liability.
Good for business
Concerns about bioterrorism are resulting in the kind of device Army scientists demonstrated at a recent biodefense conference in Baltimore.
The handheld "microarray" system tests white blood cells to detect viruses within 36 hours of exposure, sometimes even before victims know they are sick.
The device is supposed to be an early warning system against biological bombs. It was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for the malaria soldiers might encounter in other countries.
"In many cases the products of that research apply to public health," said Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.
The Army plans to refine the system to detect anthrax, smallpox and other diseases.
Before the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Silver Spring researchers worked largely in isolation to develop cures for malaria, hepatitis, dengue fever and common battle injuries.
The terrorist attacks, anthrax in letters a month later and the risks of a biochemical war unleashed on the United States refocused their attention.
Now, the military and its private contractors in the biotechnology industry have decided that what's good for business is good for the country.
"It appears that private investments in bioterrorism research are believed to be more likely to bring near-term payback," said Sau Lan Tang Staats, chief executive officer of Phoenix Science & Technology Inc.
The Elkton, Md., company produces disposable equipment for biotechnology research.
Before the attacks, the company had difficulty finding financial backers and customers. Now its equipment is being tested by the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, which houses a biochemical defense laboratory in Northeast Maryland.
In addition, the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a public-private venture that encourages technology business in Maryland, is interested in investing $50,000 in the company.
Gaithersburg biotech company GenVec Inc. is using malaria vaccine technology it developed with the Navy to work on a SARS vaccine. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is a virus that started in China in November and has been spreading around the world.
Chief Executive Paul Fischer said similar technology could be a safeguard against bioterrorism.
"The core technology is essentially the same," Mr. Fischer said. "That same kind of technology could be available in the future for these unknown events."
Cell Works Inc. in Baltimore wants to develop a blood test for anthrax, similar to a system for cancer cells it produces.
"It's something that companies like ours can incorporate into our diagnostic technology," Vice President Peter Rheinstein said. …