Bad Idea to Spend Biodefense Dollars on Flu Vaccine

The bi-partisan Commission on WMD Prevention has criticized President Obama’s recent plan to take $3 billion from a biosecurity fund and use it to help produce swine flu vaccine. The commission concluded in December 2008 that a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction is likely to occur somewhere in the world by the end of 2013. Further, it believes that the weapon will more likely be a biological agent than a nuclear bomb. So the funding shift worries the commission, whose chair, former Democratic Senator Bob Graham and vice-chair, former Republican Senator Jim Talent, said the action “will severely diminish the nation's efforts to prepare for WMD events and will leave the nation less, not more, prepared.” Washington Post

The administration seems to believe that a swine flu pandemic is more likely, or more imminent, than a bioterrorist attack. But circumstances suggest the tilt should go to the commission. The country went through a swine flu scare thirty years ago that turned out to be nothing. In 1979, in anticipation of an epidemic, the government advised Americans to get vaccinated. Most ignored the advice, though several who did receive vaccinations suffered severe side effects. The result was a surge of public anger and lawsuits as people became sick as a result of a swine flu epidemic that never was. This time, we should seek clearer evidence of an impending threat before again pushing for a mass vaccination program.

Besides, taking funds from biopreparedness programs is itself risky. Al Qaeda is among several terrorist groups and other bad actors that make no secret of their desire to acquire and use biological weapons. The 2001 germ attacks, when anthrax was spread via the U.S. mail, are a reminder of how disruptive a biological assault can be. True, some biodefense programs are of questionable value and the money for them might be spent more effectively. But the funds should remain dedicated to their intended purpose, and not pulled out for an unrelated program. Little wonder that the WMD commissioners are worried.