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Scientists Object to NIH's Bioterror Focus

Open Letter Cites Greater Health Issues

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page A13

More than 750 scientists have signed an open letter to National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni saying a funding shift that has directed large amounts of money to study a few microbes considered bioterrorism risks has substantially reduced federal support for research on other microbes that are arguably a greater danger to the public.

The new policy, implemented after the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, has resulted in a 1,500 percent increase in grants to study six microbes that the government has said are prime bioterrorism threats, including those that cause anthrax, plague and tularemia, the scientists state in their letter, to be published in Friday's issue of the journal Science. It was released yesterday.

More than 750 scientists signed a letter to National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni. (Dennis Cook--AP File)

During the same period, the number of grants for basic microbial research and medical studies of other infectious killers declined by 27 percent to 41 percent, depending on the category, the scientists report. The letter compares grant approvals during the four years before and after the policy shift, using data culled from NIH records by Rutgers University scientist Richard H. Ebright and others.

"The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research," the letter said.

"Five people died in the anthrax attacks, but thousands and millions die from malaria and cholera and all kinds of other infectious diseases every year, including many in this country," said Bonnie L. Bassler, a Princeton microbiologist who signed the letter. "There are microbes much worse than anthrax, and in the long run America is going to suffer from these decisions."

Sidney Altman, a Yale molecular biologist who also signed the letter, said the Bush administration seems to have forgotten that although it can take a decade or more for basic research to come to fruition, it invariably gives rise to breakthroughs that no one could have predicted at first.

"I think the administration is making a huge mistake ignoring basic research," said Altman, who has had trouble getting basic research grants in recent years despite a decades-long track record that includes winning a Nobel prize.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which has prime responsibility for microbial research at NIH, said he believes the letter's signers have misinterpreted the data. Funding for non-biodefense research at NIAID "has remained rock-solid," Fauci said, "even as defense-related microbiology grants have grown significantly."

Moreover, he emphasized, defense-related microbial research offers countless spinoffs that help scientists' understanding of naturally occurring diseases and outbreaks.

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