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Bio-terror vaccine stockpile procurement questioned

Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC)

A House intelligence committee member and former Bush White House bio-terror official are questioning whether smallpox and anthrax vaccine stockpile efforts are being slowed by the Obama administration because of the costs.

A May 10 letter from House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) to Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked about the viability of the CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). She asked HHS to review current and long-term needs of the stockpile and to “consider ways to ensure that HHS reacts with speed, agility and focus.”  

In particular, Myrick asked about planning for long-term maintenance of the stockpile and HHS’ procurement practices for the medicine, noting there have been significant advances in smallpox vaccine technology that the agency might not be taking advantage of.

For instance, she quoted a Forbes magazine article that said the continued availability of attenuated smallpox vaccines for the immune-compromised is at risk because of “HHS’ refusal to commit to a long-term procurement…”

She also questioned HHS’ search for more sources for anthrax antitoxin products even though contractors had already been set under existing Project Bioshield procurement contracts. That additional sourcing, she said, could slow HHS acquisition and stockpiling of the vaccine.

One former Bush Administration bioterror official said efforts to stockpile the vaccines against potential bio-terror attacks has “kind of petered out” under the Obama administration.

Bob Kadlec, former biodefense advisor to the George W. Bush administration and former staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness, wondered in an interview with Government Security News if recent news reports of the Obama administration’s refusal to position truckload caches of SNS emergency medical and biodefense supplies in Chicago ahead of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit there was another indication of a slowing of vaccine stockpiling efforts. Kadlec, now a consultant at RPK Consulting LLC, said he is concerned that the current administration is backing off commitments to biodefense quietly.

“For some in the administration, it’s not a concern,” he said of biodefense. The slowing in contracting efforts  -- like those noted by Myrick  -- could signal a significant shift in biodefense policy by the Obama administration because of cost concerns, he said. If that’s the case, he added, it shouldn’t be kept quiet, but addressed directly.

“Either we have to take this stuff seriously, or not. Some people believe that bioterror isn’t a threat,” he said. The threat, he said, still exists. The Department of Homeland Security still considers anthrax and smallpox significant biological threats, he said and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has stated a desire to acquire bio-weapons. South Korea, he added, is very concerned with a biological attack capability from North Korea.