Will the U.S. Keep Buying Medicine for 'Black Swan' Attacks?

Mei Li, senior scientist at Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, works to develop an anti-radiation drug in 2004. Mei Li, senior scientist at Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, works to develop an anti-radiation drug in 2004. Lenny Ignelzi/AP File Photo

Congress will weigh this year whether to continue spending billions of dollars on antidotes for attacks seen as relatively unlikely, but potentially devastating.

Lawmakers helped to establish Project Bioshield in 2004 to incentivize otherwise unprofitable work on treatments for exotic possible terrorism tools, such as anthrax and botulinum toxin. In coming months, though, the decade-old initiative could face unprecedented scrutiny of its funding, in part due to a dearth of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks in the United States since its launch, says a newly published Congressional Research Service report.

"Congressional policymakers could decide not to fund Project Bioshield," analyst Frank Gottron said in the assessment. "Given the continued absence of any [WMD] terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001, [they] could deem that the perceived risk of an attack no longer justifies [the] continued investment."

"Alternatively, policymakers could deem other, more conventional, countermeasure procurement methods sufficient or more efficient than Project Bioshield and redirect funding to those programs," Gottron wrote.

Congress guaranteed Project Bioshield a steady $560 million in annual funding for its first decade by setting aside billions in advance. The Health and Human Services Department set aside more than half of the program's 10-year, $5.6 billion "special reserve fund" to acquire treatments for symptoms of a wide variety of potential unconventional assaults. Of the $3.3 billion earmarked for WMD threats, about one-third went toward smallpox drugs, in case the long-eradicated virus is ever rebuilt or released from a rare laboratory stockpile.

Lawmakers last year authorized the program to continue receiving the same amount of money through fiscal 2018. Rather than maintaining its special reserve fund, though, they left funding levels to be determined through the annual appropriations process.

The program received $255 million in fiscal 2014 appropriations, and the Obama administration is seeking $415 million in the upcoming budget cycle.

"The switch to annual appropriations may complicate [the Health and Human Services Department's] long-term countermeasure development and acquisition planning," Gottron wrote. "Some developers contend that an advance appropriation helps company management more favorably consider a potential countermeasure when weighing internal investment opportunity costs."

Lawmakers may ultimately reinstate an approach similar to the 10-year reserve fund, the analyst added.

"Developers might prefer advance appropriations for as long a period as possible," he wrote. "However, providing an advance appropriation during the current fiscal environment may prove more difficult than in 2003."

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