Pentagon Launches Bio-Defense Drug Program, Defying Expert Advice and Wasting Billions

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
(AP photo)

The Pentagon has decided to launch its own costly bio-defense drug program, despite a similar effort already underway at another federal agency and despite the recommendations of a panel of experts to avoid taking such action.


Last month, the Department of Defense broke ground on its own plant, located in north Florida, to make flu vaccines and specialized medicines to shield soldiers from germ warfare agents.


Defense officials are financing the construction by diverting monies away from other military needs, such as new masks, boots, early-warning sensors and other equipment designed to combat chemical or biological weapons, according to the Los Angeles Times.


This means the Pentagon will spend millions on bio-defense drugs, even though the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also spending taxpayer dollars—possibly billions—to produce the same types of medicines through pharmaceutical companies.


The Defense Department effort also flies in the face of what a panel of experts commissioned by the White House said about developing bio-defense drugs: Don’t do it yourself.


That report, finished in 2009, was never published or shared with members of Congress. But the Times obtained a copy of it, and found the experts warned against the Pentagon establishing a government-controlled facility, saying it was cheaper and faster to contract with private companies to develop the drugs.


Assistant Secretary of Defense Andrew C. Weber was reportedly a prime mover behind the Pentagon’s plan. Weber was frustrated by the pace at which HHS was proceeding with its program, and didn’t like the idea that the medical manufacturing was not under Pentagon control, according to the Times. He won White House support when, in December 2010, President Obama’s then-counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, signed a memo recommending the establishment of “agile and flexible advanced development and manufacturing capabilities” in the Defense Department.


Was Weber aware of the 2009 report advising against doing this?


A top aide of Weber’s, James B. Petro, told the newspaper that his boss was aware of the analysis, and that it had informed his staff’s “strategic thinking.”


As the plan went forward, the General Accountability Office warned of the high cost of operating a program that duplicates the HHS program. The Senate Appropriations Committee was similarly alarmed and recommended cutting the $151.6 million requested by Obama and the House to launch the Pentagon enterprise.


Nonetheless, acknowledging the redundancy of what was happening, a Senate-House conference committee, three months later, approved $101.7 million in funding—all of which got pulled from anti-biological-weapons gear that was needed by the armed services. The orders for that gear were stalled or outright cancelled as a result.


To pay for the operation of its new bio-defense facility, the Pentagon is expected to spend $40 million per year for the next five years, which may extend an additional 25 years or more. The purchase of products made at the plant will cost even more, according to Petro.


“It’s about making sure that our men and women in uniform have the protection that they need against these threats,” Petro told the Times.


Meanwhile, HHS is doing the very same thing.


As one health official explained to the newspaper, the Defense Department “wanted to be in charge of their own fate.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Pentagon Makes Costly Foray into Biodefense Drug Business (by David Willman, Los Angeles Times)

U.S. Government Wants to Move Bio-Defense Lab from New York to Kansas (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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