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A letter two years ago signed by 750 scientists protesting the Government’s shift from funding basic infectious disease research to bioterrorism research still awaits a substantive response. 

The National Institutes of Health(NIH)support for research in basic microbiology has decreased at the same time that NIH support for research on bioweapons agents has increased,” said Richard Ebright, a prominent microbiologist at Rutgers University of New Jersey.

Ebright, lab director at Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology,organized the February, 2005, protest of top U.S. scientist-recipientsof Federal research grants. When he lined up a majority of the 1,143 scientists the NIH funded to study bacterial and fungal pathogenesis, physiology, and genetics, Ebright said, "We are staging a no-confidence vote."

The letter termed the shift to bioterror research "a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research." "What we wrote in our letter of 2005 is still true in 2007," Ebright said. 

The letter pointed out, “The diversion of research funds comes at a time when research on non-biodefense-related microbial physiology, genetics, and pathogenesis is poised for significant breakthroughs, made possible by the application of genomics, proteomics, and systems-biology methods.  These breakthroughs, and the accompanying dividends for public health and economic development, now either may not occur, or may occur only outside the United States, to the detriment of the United States' national interest.”

Following the 2005 open letter, addressed to NIH head Elias Zerhouni, a meeting was arranged at NIH attended by more than 50 scientist members of theAmerican Society of Microbiology. "The scientists identified 'missed opportunities' in basic microbiology and requested policy and funding changes to address the 'missed opportunities,'” Ebright said. “However, no substantive policy or funding changes appear to have occurred." 

Requests from scientists to investigate common diseases such as flu,malaria, and cholera, etc., are at an all-time high---as are the costsof such research. But insiders say such requests are being turned down asnever before in favor of bioterrorism work.

The Council for Responsible Genetics, a public interest group of Cambridge, Mass., has warned the shift to bioterrorism research has the potential to impact "the vitality of open biomedical research, and to drain scarce resources from key public health programs." 

Some 36,000 Americans die each year of influenza, yet according to Milton Leitenberg, an arms control authority at the University of Maryland, the government is spending more than 10 times as much annually on anthraxresearch as on flu research. Leitenberg asserts Washington is spending billions with virtually no threat analysis to the U.S., which he says Washington has “deliberately exaggerated."

The Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh MedicalCenter pegs the Government's fiscal year 2007 budget for biodefense at $5.24billion "with funding increased for most agencies involved in civilianbiodefense." 

The NIH, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., employs more than 18,000 andspends $27 billion annually in Federal funds, 80% of which is distributed toresearchers in every state and in many foreign countries. It describesitself as "the steward of medical and behavioral research for the Nation." 

The policy recommendations of the scientists spelled out in their letter called for “(1) creation of new NIH initiatives for research on basic microbial science; (2) broadening of the NIH definition of biodefense, to include not only research on prioritized bioweapons-agents but also research on basic microbial science, and (3) consolidation of study sections for research on prioritized bioweapons-agents with study sections for research on basic microbial science, thereby ensuring a uniform standard of evaluation and merit in study sections.”

“These actions would improve the quality of the NIH extramural grant portfolio, would increase NIH positive impact on science, would increase NIH positive impact on public health, and, indeed, would increase NIH positive impact on biodefense.  We recommend that the NIH implement these actions.  We further recommend that, as a first step, the NIH establish a committee of eminent microbiologists to plan and coordinate implementation of these actions.”

#(The author has worked for the Chicago Daily News, in the civil rights movement and as a wire service columnist. Reach him at sherwoodr1@yahoo.com)      
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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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