AIDS research cut to pay for anthrax vaccine

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, July 16, 2003 at 1:45PM :

Nature 424, 241 (17 July 2003)

AIDS research cut to pay for anthrax vaccine


[WASHINGTON] The Bush administration is to proceed with plans to skim more than $200 million from research grant programmes to pay for the rapid production of an anthrax vaccine, brushing off the protests of biologists.

As a result of the decision, 375 AIDS researchers and other grant-holders at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will this year lose the initial six months of funding on their awards.

The NIAID will spend $233 million on the research, development and purchase of a 'next-generation' anthrax vaccine by 2004, the White House Office of Management and Budget says.

The transfer of money from the NIAID's civilian research programmes for the vaccine work is just 2% of its total research budget. But research organizations say they are afraid that the decision is a harbinger of how the NIAID's swelling biodefence mission may compromise its research programmes.

"I don't think anyone opposes doing research to make a better anthrax vaccine but that work should be funded out of the bioterrorism budget, not by raiding the AIDS budget," says Daniel Kuritzkes, director of AIDS research at the Partners AIDS Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Congress and the administration have been wrangling over the anthrax-vaccine project since February last year, when President Bush's budget request asked for $233 million for the NIAID to spend on a vaccine. Congress denied the request and divided up the money between several parts of the National Institutes of Health. But the White House then demanded that the NIAID find a way to fulfil its request anyway.

In a letter sent to legislators on 2 July, White House budget director Joshua Bolten said that the NIAID would spend up to $117 million this year and $116 million next year on the "advanced development" of an anthrax vaccine, including the purchase of up to 9 million doses of vaccine.

The decision disappointed the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which says that the vaccine purchase could endanger the NIAID's larger research mission. The group argues that another branch of government, such as the Department of Homeland Security, should be paying for the vaccine.

On 11 July, Congressman Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (Democrat, New Mexico) wrote to the president protesting against the decision, which they called a "serious mistake".

But NIAID officials are putting on a brave face. "The Office of Management and Budget's position is that there is a critical need for the nation to rapidly develop a vaccine and there's nothing else out there to support this now," says Ralph Tate, the NIAID's budget director.

Janet Shoemaker, public-affairs director at the American Society for Microbiology, says NIAID officials are making the best of a difficult situation. "The anthrax issue has become less urgent in most people's minds, but in the minds of the people making the decisions it is still a very high priority," she says.

-- Sadie
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