BiodefenseNew U.S. biodedfense R&D network launched

Published 24 July 2012

On Monday, Texas A&M System dedicated a new research center which is part of a national network of centers aiming to develop strategies and products to counter bioterrorism, chemical and radiological attacks on the United States, and better strategies to deal with pandemics; the network will have facilities in Texas, Maryland, and North Carolina; the Texas dedication is the culmination of a Manhattan Project-like program for biological countermeasures, launched in 2004 by the Department of Health and Human Services; the research network aims to develop “rapid, nimble and flexible approaches” to vaccine and therapy development, and train the next generation of professionals to sustain U.S. capabilities in these areas

On Monday, Texas A&M System dedicated a new research center which is part of a national network of centers aiming to develop strategies and products to counter bioterrorism, chemical and radiological attacks on the United States, and better strategies to deal with pandemics.

In June, the Texas A&M System, a system which includes eleven universities and 120,000 students, won a large federal contract to become a major national hub of vaccine production and bioterror preparedness. The contract, announced by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, calls for the creation of a Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. The center is expected to last twenty-five years and likely is worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion. The centers – the Texas A&M center is part of 5-center network, which will also have facilities in Maryland and North Carolina — are part of a federal plan to improve preparedness that is being led by the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The AP reports that the research network aims to develop “rapid, nimble and flexible approaches” to come up with vaccines against pandemic influenza; devise accelerated methods to develop those vaccines to commercial licensure; develop treatments for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats; and train “the next generation of professionals” to sustain the nation’s capability in those areas.

This is a problem solving endeavor,” Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives of the Texas A&M University System, told AP. “These are not minimal problems. These are big important problems for the country. And we’re going to bring everybody to the table we can … to solve the problems and protect public health.”

A Texas A&M release reports that the three new centers will be receiving funding to build or renovate facilities to develop and manufacture medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and medicines used in an emergency. The center, as a public-private partnership, aims to enhance the U.S. emergency preparedness against emerging infectious diseases, including pandemic influenza and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.

Texas A&M does not have a long history with human vaccines, so the choice of the Texas school was puzzling to some. Robin Robinson, the director of the new center, says that Texas A&M created a consortium with several pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Lonza, and innovative local companies, including Caliber Biotherapeutics, to provide a team that can make vaccines quickly in a public health emergency and help companies in need to develop and manufacture their vaccines on a routine basis.

Robinson points out that had the 2009 H1N1 pandemic been more severe, for example, then the center would have executed contingency plans that included medical countermeasures and other social distancing mitigation measures. The contingent medical countermeasure plans included manufacturing and usage of flu vaccines formulated with adjuvants. This dose-sparing technology provides a way to extend a limited vaccine supply to more people. Additionally, contingencies included the distribution of the unused stockpile of flu antiviral drugs to treat patients.

Robinson emphasizes that the new centers, all based in the United States, will produce and make available pandemic flu vaccines sooner than in 2009 due to newer vaccine and flexible manufacturing technologies. Nearly 90 percent of the pandemic vaccine needs will be provided domestically, utilizing these new centers and current flu vaccine manufacturers in the United States.

Robinson, in response to a question about whether people should be more concerned about deliberate biological attacks or naturally occurring disease outbreaks, said that Mother Nature is always cooking up new pathogens, as exemplified by the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 and the SARS epidemic in 2003. Biological, chemical, and radiological threats continue to be concerns to us today.

Robinson came to HHS in 2004 to establish a Manhattan Project-like program for biological countermeasures. He says that when the centers are actually making vaccines and helping other companies, then he will take a breath.

Asked which is the better movie, “28 Days Later” or “Outbreak,” Robinson said: “’The Andromeda Strain’ was a very good movie that depicted more realistically the evolution of an unknown pathogen and how humankind would deal with the spread of a new infectious disease.”

Research is very important,” Robinson said. “It is the lifeblood of what we do in America. Here this center has to do more than research. It has to produce. And that’s a real dilemma one has going forward, when there is a real attack on America, be it Mother Nature or other terrorists. And you have to it and have to do it now.”

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