Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

CBEP is trying to expand its centers of excellence beyond the former Soviet Union nations.

On New Year’s Eve, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), approving spending for defense programs for the current federal fiscal year. NDAA, also known as HR 1540, generated headlines during the weeks President Obama and Congress were hashing out the bill’s wording for the requirement of military detention for suspects charged with aiding terrorism.

More quietly, however, NDAA also set levels of funding for several biodefense programs. The funding authorization for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program was reduced by 5%, or $67.5 million, to $1.14 billion from $1.2 billion. The reduction reflected delays in several programs. The largest cut was $50 million following a delay in issuing a request for proposals for the Medical Countermeasures Initiative (MCMI). Delays to the Bioscavenger program, designed to create MCMs that protect military members specifically from nerve agents, resulted in a $24 million reduction.

“DoD has to commit to flexible manufacturing technologies because of the breadth of medical countermeasures we need to protect our troops and support global operations, and because of the varying numbers of doses required for each of these,” said Gerald W. Parker Jr., Ph.D., deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for chemical and biological defense.

By the end of 2012, Dr. Parker said, there will be a Homeland Response Force unit capable of responding within hours to biological as well as chemical, radiological, nuclear, and high explosive disasters in each of the 10 U.S. regions into which the Federal Emergency Management Administration has divided its operations.

The defense authorization bill also includes $632.994 million for the purchase of 100 Stryker nuclear, biological, and chemical reconnaissance vehicles and $30.421 million for the Biological Warfare Defense Program; this funding level was proposed by President Obama and remains flat compared to last year.

Boosting the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program

NDAA included a sharp increase in the spending authorized for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP). Since FY 2010, CBEP has incorporated the formerly separate Cooperative Biological Research and Biosecurity, Biosafety, Threat Agent Detection, and Response programs. NDAA met President Obama’s proposal, authorizing $259.5 million for CBEP in FY 2012. That is 53% more than the previous fiscal year’s $169 million, which was significantly below the $209 million requested by the president last year.

Along with the extra funding comes a hitch, though. CBEP can use only 80% of authorized funds pending a review of the program by the office of the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. The 80% limit would bring available funding for CBEP down to $207.6 million, still 23% above the $169.1 million budgeted for FY 2011.

The review would include “an analysis of the effectiveness of CBEP, a certification that CBEP results in changed practices and threat reduction, or a detailed list of policy and program recommendations considered by the Secretary to be necessary to modify, expand, or curtail CBEP,” according to NDAA.

Evaluating Cooperative Threat Reduction Program’s Expansion

CBEP accounts for more than half the $508.2 million authorized for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program. The House Armed Services Committee has questioned the expansion and redirection of CTR reflected by CBEP’s growth, from arms control and threat reduction efforts to broader engagement by American officials with their counterparts in participating countries. The new agenda includes capacity building, or enhancement of the country’s human, scientific, technological, organizational, institutional, and resource capabilities.

“The committee is concerned that this reorientation could both impair CTR’s traditional focus on threat reduction and complicate program assessment,” armed services said in its committee report on NDAA. “To the extent that the biological engagement monitors naturally occurring diseases, it may become more difficult for Congress to monitor CTR’s continued focus on threats.”

At the Senate’s request, Panetta’s office will also have to furnish to the House and Senate armed services committees details on new centers of excellence CTR wants to open outside the former Soviet Union. The U.S. has already joined with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine to develop disease surveillance and diagnostic capabilities at national, regional, and district levels.

Last year CBEP opened a disease-monitoring facility built for the Ministry of Defense in Baku, Azerbaijan; opened a new Central Reference Laboratory in Georgia for disease surveillance and diagnostics; and hired a contractor to design a program to enhance Armenia’s human and veterinary biological threat reduction capabilities.The national networks are designed, over time, to be interconnected with the goals of enhancing disease monitoring, reporting, and containment as well as ensuring early warning of disease outbreaks.

The House Armed Services Committee has asked Panetta’s office to study whether the network “could prove insufficient to monitor, detect, and deter manmade pathogens, even if implemented widely,” and whether the network will fall short of addressing the global biological threat.

In terms of the move to add more centers of excellence, DTRA is seeking to expand CBEP into Iraq, India, and the African nations of Djibouti, South Africa, and Tanzania. Additionally, CBEP is engaged with officials in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, and Uganda, according to Myers. During 2012, CBEP plans to initiate biorisk assessments in “selected areas of Asia and Africa” as well as implement the Electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance System (EIDSS), the DoD told Congress. EIDSS is already deployed in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with Armenia and Ukraine starting on implementation during FY 2011.

“CBEP is working with new partner countries to build capacity that improves safe and secure diagnosis of dangerous disease outbreaks and to gain an understanding of their indigenous pathogens,” explained DTRA director Kenneth A. Myers III.

Also testifying before the committee that day was Kenneth B. Handelman, principal deputy assistant secretary for global strategic affairs, who sought to justify CTR’s decision to expand in Africa on military as well as biological grounds. “The United States and its allies have had a long-standing public-health presence in Africa, a base of experience, and familiarity that facilitates CTR’s activities on the continent,” Handelman said. “The U.S. military has important relationships in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, so we view our activities as directly supporting U.S. troops’ security, in addition to furthering larger nonproliferation goals.”

Handelman added that potential African partner governments were enthusiastic about opportunities for CTR program activities: “We are working with them to pursue a regional approach for our cooperative engagement program that would have a lasting impact beyond traditional bilateral relationships.”

FY 2013 Budget to Reveal More

Going forward, Handelman told Congress, CBEP will work to eliminate threats four ways: By consolidating and securing collections of pathogens deemed especially dangerous that might serve as the source for biological weapons; providing laboratory safety enhancements and training to prevent accidental release of especially dangerous pathogens; strengthening partner countries’ detection, diagnostic, and reporting systems with training, technology upgrades, and improvements to laboratory detection networks; and promoting collaborative research projects to increase capacity to understand and recognize the most dangerous pathogens.

Observers of defense spending are waiting to see how the Department of Defense applies authorization limits in President Obama’s FY 2013 budget, which will be submitted to Congress by February 6. “It will be more clear once the budget comes out,” Crystal Franco MPH, associate at the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, told GEN.

Next fiscal year’s budget is all the more interesting as it is an election-year document. President Obama will have to balance the desire to spend more with Congress’ likely desire for the status quo. Still, the NDAA offers a welcome window on what spending can be expected this coming fiscal year and especially on what programs, in and outside biodefense, will compete for all those federal dollars.

Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

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