A Manhattan Project for Bioterrorism

A new "Manhattan Project"

By | July 4, 2005


Courtesy of Viral Defense Foundation

Norman G. Anderson (right) is president and founder of the Viral Defense Foundation http://viraldefense.org, and N. Leigh Anderson (left) is CEO of the Plasma Proteome Institute. Previously they jointly founded the Molecular Anatomy Program at the Argonne National Laboratory, and a biotechnology company, Large Scale Biology.

A new "Manhattan Project" to combat bioterrorism has been proposed by US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and many others. But what would such a project look like? And is it a good idea? For some answers, it is worth reviewing the history of the original Manhattan Project.

We have between us spent almost 38 years in national laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Argonne, Ill., which were both derived from the Manhattan Project. The Project had a clear central objective, a decisive test for success or failure, leadership by technically competent hands-on scientists, access to all discoverable intellectual property, simple direct lines of command, an absolute minimum amount of paperwork, budgets and facilities to match requirements, overwhelming dedication to projects and none to profit, an urgent time line, and a willingness and capability to change directions quickly as new information required it. No one had a company on the side, or expected to benefit personally from his or her research and development. In the immediate postwar era, part of this environment survived, and surprising collegiality with ideas and data flowed with few constraints. This is now rarely the case.

The experiment of using Project laboratories for the discovery of infectious agents and facilitating the production of vaccines against them has been tried. In the early 1960s the National Cancer Institute, based on the belief that many human cancers were due to viral infections, set up a large national program to find these viruses and to produce vaccines to protect the entire US public against cancer – exactly what is required for biodefense now.

The result was the NIH-AEC Zonal Centrifuge Project,1 a joint project of the National Institutes of Health and the Atomic Energy Commission. It was based on the zonal centrifuge (which one of us [N.G.A.] had already invented at Oak Ridge) and on the engineering talents and facilities of the highly classified Gas Centrifuge Group of the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant. We developed more than 50 centrifuge systems, including the K-II centrifuge for vaccine purification,2 which has come into wide use and largely accounts for the fact that influenza vaccines are pure enough and therefore safe enough to be administered in supermarkets without medical supervision.

This history suggests to us that a Manhattan Project type of effort is, at least in theory, possible. Viruses are the natural focus for such a project, as they represent the greatest risk in terms of natural and artificial engineering, and because no broad-spectrum antivirals analogous to antibiotics exist. Could this type of project be set up today?

The hurdles are significant. Biodefense activities are administered through more than 26 positions, in more than 12 agencies, all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, with more than $5.5 billion spent in FY2004.3 Contrast this with the Missile Defense Agency, which has one head, appointed by the Secretary of Defense, and an FY 2004 budget of $7.7 billion.

The current situation means that no one person or even a manageable group of persons is conversant with the basic problems and technical details of rapid detection and response to a new lethal infectious agent. Also lacking are free access to the relevant technologies, and an administrative authority with the talent and budgets now required to provide for our defense. A new agency is needed to spearhead the project, which would focus on three core objectives.

First, it must create and maintain the capability to detect and completely characterize any new virus infecting humans anywhere on the planet, and do so within days. This will require a revolution in virology, but one that is technically within our grasp.4 Second, it must assemble and update a comprehensive list of all human viruses (the human "virome") and determine how each functions in causing human disease. This provides a comprehensive foundation for understanding viral threats and anticipating the evolving capabilities of potential viroterrorists. Third, and most challenging, it must continuously produce and test subunit vaccines against all known human viruses, even if they are never used. Means must be developed for rapid scale-up of vaccine production on timescales commensurate with a real pandemic.

Clearly the vaccine component faces immense obstacles in terms of Food and Drug Administration approval, clinical testing, and ethical constraints. Nevertheless, it could provide the only defense available in a true pandemic or viroterrorist attack, reducing the detection and response times to weeks, instead of years, and providing the US population with biodefense in real time.

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