Value of Pentagon-backed vaccine plant questioned

Over the past 20 years the Pentagon has invested heavily to protect military personnel from biological threats. While few question the necessity of such investments, the scale and type of projects is a source of considerable controversy, as shown by the Pentagon's latest push into vaccine manufacturing.

In March the Defense Department awarded Nanotherapeutics a contract worth up to $359 million to build a 165,000-square-foot manufacturing facility dedicated to supplying the Pentagon. Nanotherapeutics broke ground at the Florida site last month, but debates about the cost-effectiveness of the project are ongoing. A 2009 analysis recommended against building such a quasi-government-controlled plant, as the authors calculated outsourcing on a project-by-project basis delivers drugs faster and for less investment.

Observers are also concerned that the plant duplicates work already handled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has awarded biodefense contracts worth billions of dollars to pharma firms. The Pentagon currently purchases anthrax and smallpox vaccines from the HHS stockpile, but some have calculated a dedicated military production plant would be more efficient. However, the 2009 analysis--which was commissioned by the White House--found this to be the least viable sourcing strategy.

"This is a really, really hard thing to do," David Danley, a former head of the Pentagon's vaccine-acquisition program, told the Los Angeles Times. Danley led the program from 2000 to 2003, during which time the anthrax-laced letter mailings that followed September 11 prompted the Pentagon to reassess its medical countermeasure strategy. The military went through a similar process after the 1991 Gulf War but later dropped the resulting research projects. "The numbers--the costs--just didn't make sense," Danley said.

- here's the LA Times feature