Opinion

Reinvigorating Biodefense as a National Security Priority

Our country’s national security efforts are often perceived to be concerning the major operations of tanks, fighter jets and submarines to protect from potential threats across land, air and sea. An area of national security preparedness that’s just as relevant as but receives far less attention is bioterrorism.

While bioterrorism has been an area of importance since anthrax letters were sent to various offices in D.C. nearly 14 years ago, the need to be prepared for such threats has recently become more apparent. Just last month, it was discovered that North Korea has a plant capable of producing weaponized anthrax, and only a few weeks prior to that, a U.S. facility inadvertently shipped live anthrax spores to almost 200 domestic and international labs. And let us not forget that it was just one short year ago that the entire world was watching in fear over a potential global outbreak of Ebola – a threat it quickly became clear we were totally unprepared for when thousands of people perished due to the virus.

In light of these events, it is critical for us to increase our biodefense efforts as a country to match the increased threat they present to national security. While there have certainly been great strides to increase our biosecurity preparedness – particularly in the development of medical countermeasures (MCMs) at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and procurement of those products under Project BioShield – there remain worrisome gaps in our Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) of vaccines for identified threats.

In particular, our nation currently lacks a well equipped stockpile of an anthrax vaccine, which is a key part of the armamentarium of biodefense program needs. It is for this reason that we at Pfenex are very pleased to be working with the U.S. government, through BARDA, to address a key unmet need, developing a next-generation anthrax vaccine to fully supply the SNS. This work is critical to the safety of the American people since the government currently lacks the quantity, stability and dose-sparing regimens of anthrax vaccine needed for a completely filled stockpile. Additionally, our unique protein expression platform technology will allow us to develop a vaccine with the potential to reduce the number of doses needed for the vaccine – providing protection as quickly as possible to save lives of those exposed to this deadly pathogen.

The threat of bioterrorism will only continue to grow, facilitated by today’s increasingly connected world. In fact, according to the Director of National Intelligence, biological and chemical materials and technologies are more accessible than ever to groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. This means that it is more important than ever for our government to be prepared to respond to these threats, and investing in next-generation vaccines to fulfill stockpile needs is a critical piece of this preparedness.

Thus, it is imperative that these anti-bioterrorism efforts continue. Bills like the Strengthening Public Health Emergency Act of 2015, which creates industry incentives to utilize cutting edge technologies to address biodefense needs, and the creation of priority review vouchers to address threats identified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are key to support the mission allowing for development of MCMs to protect the American people. We urge Congress to continue supporting a robust national biodefense program, in particular ensuring that enough doses of all MCMs for the 13 pathogens identified by DHS are addressed. The American people deserve no less.

Dr. Bert Liang is the founding and current CEO of Pfenex Inc., a biologics company focused on the development of biodefense products and providing access to biosimilars. Dr. Liang acts as the Chair of the Biodefense Policy Advisory Committee of BIO, and was recently elected inaugural Chair of the Biosimilars Council, a division of the Generic Pharmaceuticals Association.

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