Countering Bioterrorism

11 October 2010 (Last Updated October 11th, 2010 18:30)

As the terrorist threat grows, global governments are working to counter a potentially devastating bioterrorist attack. Muriel Axford investigates the technology.

Countering Bioterrorism

Concern surrounding the possibility of bioterrorist attacks on major cities across the world has placed governments, the military and businesses alike at a heightened state of alert. A sombre note sounded during the early part of 2010 when Bob Graham and Jim Talent, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the US's Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation and Terrorism warned "The threat of bioweapons being used by terrorists or rogue states has continued to worsen." The comments were made at the House Committee on Homeland Security hearing.

Bioterrorism is described as the intentional release of pathogenic virus, bacteria or any toxins, in their natural form of otherwise modified, for mass destruction of human life and live stock. The nature of the threat means that the global pharmaceutical industry is at the forefront of the drive to mitigate the impact on human life of any potential attack.

BARDA

The US is among the lead nations making preparations to deal with biothreats and its strategy is managed through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), within the Office of the Assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Fulfilling its remit, BARDA has awarded a number of contracts aimed at bolstering and developing the US and its preparation for the technology. During September 2010 Emergent BioSolutions was awarded a $186.6m for the development of a recombinant protective antigen (rPA) anthrax vaccine. The five-year project comprises a two year base period to develop the final vaccine and test its stability; this is valued at $51m. Then there are three successive one-year option periods valued at $126m and funding for optional non-clinical studies valued at $9m.

"The future is now set for a wave of innovative ways to deal with biological threats."

The beginning of September also saw BARDA award biopharmaceutical company Achaogen a contract covering the development, manufacturing and regulatory activities that would position Achaogen's lead antibiotic candidate ACHN-490 for the treatment of certain bio-threat agents, including Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague, and Francisella tularensis, which causes tularaemia. The contract includes a two-year base period with committed funding of $27m and subsequent option periods that, if completed, would bring the total value of the award to $64.5m.

These are just two among a number of awards and are indicative of US authorities' drive to ensure that bioterror counter measures are at hand. Indeed, according to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius last years' swine flu highlighted some of the weaknesses.

Speaking at the Bioprepardeness in 2010 summit held during September, Sebelius said, "As quickly as we acted on H1N1, there was one fundamental problem we couldn't overcome: we were fighting the 2009 H1N1 flu with vaccine technology from the 1950s. We could race to begin vaccine production but there was nothing we could do if the virus grew slowly in eggs. We could make deals with foreign vaccine producers ahead of time, but we wouldn't have as much control over that vaccine as we have with companies based in the US." The HHS is putting in place a strategy that will, amongst other things, help industry develop countermeasures for rare conditions such as such as Ebola virus or radiation poisoning.

A global effort to counter terror

Biothreats are not contained within geographical boundaries so collaboration and a global effort to combat such threats are necessary. February 2010 saw tuberculosis (TB) experts and doctors from the US and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Ministry of Public Health announce the establishment of North Korea's first laboratory for diagnosis of drug-resistant TB. The collaboration, which was described as "unprecedented", aims to strengthen North Korea's ability to detect all forms of TB and support its treatment and control.

The project, launched in 2008, is backed by the US Nuclear Threat Initiative's (NTI) global health and security initiative, which works to prevent, detect and respond to biological threats around the world. "With the emergence of drug resistant forms of TB, international cooperation is essential, and this work is vital to reduce biological risks and advance health security," said Sam Nunn, co-chairman of NTI's Global Health and Security Initiative.

While there is a drive to push through effective solutions so that countries are prepared for any eventuality, the need for new ways to tackle issues is not being overlooked. During August 2010, Rice University in the US was awarded a three-year grant from the government's Defence Threat Reduction Agency to develop a genomic test that can determine if a disease outbreak is caused by a natural pathogen or one that has been grown in a lab by terrorists.

Yousif Shamoo associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology and director of Rice's Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering said that the project's goal is to find "telltale signs that an organism has been grown in a laboratory or developed through a natural process". Researchers will gather wild strains of two common bacteria and domesticate each of them in the lab, Genomic snapshots will be taken through the process, and they will be analysed to detect telltale patterns.

"With the emergence of drug resistant forms of TB, international cooperation is essential."

The future is now set for a wave of innovative ways to deal with biological threats. Some of the most promising developments include work done at the University of Pittsburgh's McGown Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Researchers have created a polymer that can decontaminate both biological and chemical toxins. The polymer is created by spinning polyurethane fibres into a mesh to which enzymes are added. These enzymes lead to the production of bacteria killing bromine or iodine as well chemicals that generate compounds that detoxify organo-phosphate nerve agents.

The mesh which could be developed into a coating or spray and used as a wound dressing has been used successfully to kill a number of bacteria including E coli. Institute director Dr Alan Russell said that the findings could someday be used to protect against biological and chemical weapons. "The unpredictability of such an attack calls for a single broad-spectrum decontamination material that can rapidly neutralise both kinds of threats and is easily delivered or administered," he said.

Meanwhile last year's outbreak of swine flu has galvanised global institutions, laying bare the waste with which a virus can spread across the world. The race is now on to bolster global defences.