Anthrax Attacks Gave Rise To Biodefense Industry
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
In those fearful days after the 9/11 attacks, anthrax arrived in the public consciousness. At the time, most people thought the anthrax killings were a new kind of terrorist attack. Today, of course, the FBI says they were a product of a rogue scientist who committed suicide last month.
Those few envelopes, though, seven years ago caused enormous havoc and they gave rise to what's become an enormous industry: biodefense.
I asked NPR's David Kestenbaum just how much money is being spent on biodefense.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: This coming year the budget looks like it could be eight billion dollars and since 2001, total budget about 50 billion dollars. That's on the civilian side and those numbers come from the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It's sort of complicated because they're in all these different agencies and you have to add it all up.
SEABROOK: Mm hmm, yeah, I know from covering Congress that every year there would be, you know, a few more billion here, a few more billion there. Some of it for defense, some of it for preparedness.
KESTENBAUM: Right, there's a lot, but it's, you know, it's a lot of money. And some of the things it goes for, there was this effort called Bioshield. And the idea is you have money to purchase drugs and vaccines for a stockpile in case the United States is attacked. There's an early warning system, money for sensors that are placed around the country in urban areas and they collect air on a filter. And then someone goes and analyzes them and they can tell if they're spores or something else floating around.
SEABROOK: So how are those projects doing?
KESTENBAUM: You know, I think if you talk to sort of independent people who look at this, they say there's been, there's been progress in a lot of areas. There have been some notable setbacks. In the effort to get a new anthrax vaccine, there is an anthrax vaccine but it has a bunch of side effects so the government was hoping there would be a new one.
And they put out a contract to buy 877 million dollars worth of it. And the company just, the delivery date slipped and eventually the contract got canceled. So the government right now is actually rethinking how it does this vaccine development stuff.
SEABROOK: David, what about protecting the anthrax and other deadly pathogens that the U.S. has and uses in labs all around the country? I mean that, that, the government thinks, at least, the FBI thinks that that's where the attacks came from.
KESTENBAUM: Right, I mean before 2001, for instance, if you just take anthrax, right? You know, it was studied like diseases were studied, you know, you're studying AIDS or something. And there wasn't necessarily a whole lot more security. I went to a - to contrast that, I went to a meeting of anthrax scientists in 2005 and it was like a whole hotel full of them.
And they were telling me that, you know, back in the day it was just like five of them sitting around at a table drinking beer talking about, you know, the anthrax they picked up from some soil sample near the cow that died in Texas, you know. So the field changed a lot. And the security got a lot tighter after 2001.
SEABROOK: The thing that I wonder about is the long tail of money that is spent on this kind of thing, you know. Remember after the attacks they started irradiating all of Congressional mail for this stuff. So they'd send all the mail, reroute it out to the Midwest somewhere, irradiate it there and send it back to the members of Congress.
They're still doing that. I mean people don't remember, that's a huge cost, it's a governmental cost, that it's still all being irradiated. They still cut off the corner of all the letters and shake any powder out of it, seven years later. So are there things that we're doing now that are, that was an overwhelming response to what might've been not an overwhelming attack?
KESTENBAUM: I, you know, I have a little crispy piece of mail tacked up by my desk, and to me it's sort of emblematic of the struggle the government has, right? They have to be seen to be responding to this. They want to do what they can. On the other hand, as you pointed out to me, you know, members of Congress just get mail sent to their houses or some other place, and some staffer brings it in.
SEABROOK: Right, so...
KESTENBAUM: So you have to evaluate each project and, you know, what are you, what are you getting out of it and is it really working?
SEABROOK: So David, I guess it comes down to the bottom line, which is, are we as Americans safer than we were when these attacks first happened seven years ago?
KESTENBAUM: There are a lot of observers who would tell you yes, in a lot of ways things are improved. You know, hospitals are better ready to deal with these things. But there is, there are some critics who say, look, the threat is really uncertain. We don't have a lot of data that al-Qaida's out there really working on these things. So we're spending billions of dollars and we don't really understand what the likelihood is that this could happen.
SEABROOK: NPR's David Kestenbaum. Thanks very much.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
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