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BIODEFENSE BRIEFING: Say Anthrax, or Who Got What in NIH FY03 Grants for Biodefense and Category A Pathogens

NEW YORK, Oct. 24 (GenomeWeb News) - Anthrax seemed to be the magic word that opened up the purse of the NIH in fiscal year 2003, with vaccines, immunity, and smallpox running close behind, an analysis of extramural NIH funding for biodefense and Category A pathogens indicates.


Out of 153 extramural grants GenomeWeb News found in a search of NIH FY03 awards in biodefense, bioterrorism, or Category A pathogen work, 56 of them covered research on anthrax (or Bacillus  anthracis) . These extramural grants totaled over $19.1 million of the $60.4 million total.


27 grants, for a total of $13.6 million, covered vaccine research or development, while 25 grants, for a total of $11.9 million, were in the area of smallpox, poxviruses, or orthopoxviruses. (There was significant overlap between these categories.)


Of the other agents defined as Category A pathogens by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 grants totaling just over $5 million covered research on the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, while six grants for a total of $5.25 million covered Clostridium botulinum toxin, 11 grants for about $2.9 million were awarded for the study of viral hemmoragic fevers such as Ebola (5 grants for $1.26 million), hantaviruses (3), and arenaviruses (2); and six grants for a total of $1.9 million addressed research on Francisella tularensis.


In the analysis, GenomeWeb News searched the complete list of FY 2003 extramural NIH grants in each of 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories, as well as the list of foreign extramural awardees, using a group of key words designed to trawl for grants that covered either biodefense research or research on Category A pathogens. The words were: biodefense, bioterrorism, anthrax, anthracis, tularensis, yersinia, pestis, poxvirus, variola, smallpox hantavirus, arenavirus, filovirus, Ebola, and botulinum.


Admittedly, this search allowed for human error and could miss grants (for example, one covering a category B pathogen that could be used in bioterror such as ricin). It also included all work on pathogens such as plague and Ebola that occur without an intentional release in parts of the world, and so the researchers receiving the awards may not think of their work as strictly bioterrorism- or biodefense-related.


The idea, however, was to get a picture of where the NIH extramural funding priorities have been focused in the biodefense area--where the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has made a concerted effort to increase research on Category A pathogens--and who received grants for what.


Not only did the search show that anthrax research has been more favored than popular than that for F. tularensis, but it also sketched out what kind of research, in general, is favored.


In addition to the emphasis on vaccines, 29 grants were in the area of therapeutic development, while only eight focused on detection technologies or the diagnostic area, and 53 grants were for basic research. This breakdown mirrors the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' own stated priorities: In FY 2002, the Institute laid out a clear strategy to expand its biodefense research, with the focus on basic microbial and host response research, as well as the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.


The analysis also gave an overview of the way that biodefense-related grants are distributed between public and private entities, and geographically.


Of the 153 grants, 30 went to private companies, but these grants made up over $19.6 million in funding, or nearly a third of the pie. While the average university or nonprofit institute's grant in this area came to about $331,000, the average grant to a commercial entity was nearly double that, at over $655,000. The NIH was willing to award multi-million dollar grants to private entities particularly in the vaccine area, where, for example, Alphavax of Research Triangle Park, NC received $1.3 million for a botulinum vaccine grant, and in therapeutics, where Chimerix of San Diego was awarded a $3 million grant to develop a smallpox drug.


The distribution of these private-sector grants geographically also tells a story about the degree to which a private sector for biodefense is developed in different areas of the US. While Wisconsin received less biodefense funding overall than Texas, three of its eight awards went to private companies, indicating that the growing life sciences sector in that state is providing fertile ground for the growth of a biodefense industry activity: in contrast, only two of the 11 awards that Texas received are going to private entities.


Overall the geographic distribution of awards was pretty predictable. California received the largest proportion of grant money in the categories analyzed, with $15.2 million in awards for FY 2003. Texas followed next, with $5.0 million; and Massachusetts was third, with $3.9 million.


Interestingly though, foreign recipients followed a close fourth, with $3.8 million in grants--an indication that a US address is not a prerequisite for an award in the area of biodefense or bioterrorism. Some of this foreign research was explicitly biodefense-related, such as the $2.5 million grant awarded to Omrix Biopharmaceuticals in Israel for a smallpox treatment, or the $108,000 grant to the University of the Mediterranee in Marseille, France, "molecular detection of weaponized arenaviruses."


Additionally, Maryland and Wisconsin each received $3.5 million in funding; Illinois received $3.1 million, New York received $2.3 million, Alabama and North Carolina each received $1.9 million, and Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Louisiana each got $1.5 million.


This distribution of extramural grant money, for the purposes of this analysis, does not include the recent awards for the eight Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, which the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced Sept. 4. These grants will total $350 million over five years, and will go to  Duke University in North Carolina, Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, the New York State Department of Health''s Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, the University of Chicago in Illinois, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas Medical Branch, the University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.


With this new grant money, existing powerhouses in biodefense like Texas are slated to become stronger in the area (especially since UTMB was also just awarded the $120 million construction grant for a National Biocontainment Laboratory), while states like Washington that have not had significant extramural funding in  biodefense, or Missouri, which had just $1.3 million in grants this year, will be able to enter future grant competitions in this arena on stronger footing.


To go to the NIH grants lists on which this analysis was done,  click here.

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