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0 Pentagon rethinks bioterror effort

Critics say US$1.5-billion initiative has not delivered results.

In the film Contagion, it takes just a few months for scientists to make a vaccine against a deadly virus. Yet a real US military programme that aimed to do just that is being dismantled after five years of trying.
Soldiers are yet to see any effective new countermeasures against bioterror agents.

The Transformational Medical Technologies (TMT) initiative, born in the US Department of Defense in 2006, was originally conceived as a five-year, US$1.5-billion project that would substantially accelerate the development of countermeasures to protect soldiers against biological attacks. Made into a permanent programme in 2009, it set out to sequence the genomes of potential bioterror agents, explore new drug technologies and develop 'broad-spectrum' therapies that would work against multiple bacterial and viral pathogens — especially haemorrhagic fever viruses such as Ebola and Marburg. Supporters of the programme point out that three candidate drugs developed under the programme, for pathogens including Ebola virus, are now in clinical trials.

The TMT programme, however, has ceased to exist as a stand-alone effort. Alan Rudolph, director of Chemical and Biological Technologies for the TMT's parent office, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, is folding some TMT projects into other Pentagon efforts and reordering their priorities. Critics say that it has failed in its underlying objective to provide a faster, game-changing approach to biodefence. No antibiotics developed by the TMT have entered clinical trials. The drug candidates it has developed are designed for single pathogens, not multiple threats. And although the programme is set to award a major clinical-trial contract later this year, the drug being tested would treat not exotic, untreatable pathogens but ordinary influenza, a disease already heavily researched outside the Pentagon.

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