Nature News Blog: US launches three biodefense centres : Nature News Blog

Texas A&M University moves to the forefront of the US biodefense effort.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today awarded contracts for the creation of three new centers tasked with responding to the threat of future pandemics and biological attacks.  Based in Maryland, North Carolina and Texas, the three centres are comprised of academic and industry consortia whose role it will be to hasten the development and manufacturing of vaccines and medications in the event of an emerging biological threat.

“Establishing these centers represents a dramatic step forward in ensuring that the United States can produce life-saving countermeasures quickly and nimbly,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a statement on 18 June. “They will improve our ability to protect Americans’ health in an emergency and help fill gaps in preparedness so that our nation can respond to known or unknown threats.”

The three “Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing” are the first tangible result of a review concluded by HHS in 2010, which highlighted major improvements needed to effectively fight an outbreak from an emerging disease, such as H1N1 in 2009 or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, or a bio-terrorism attack, such as the anthrax attacks of 2001.

The contracts, amounting to roughly $400 million, represent a range of academic and private partnerships as well as partnerships between large pharmaceutical companies and small biotech firms. “We noted that many small companies with great ideas don’t see their products make it because they need a lot of technical help,” says Nicole Lurie, HHS’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

The contracts include:

  • $163 million over eight years  to Emergent BioSolutions Inc. in Maryland to expand their lab facilities in Baltimore and Gaithersburg. Emergent collaborates with researchers at Michigan State University, Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
  • Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics will receive $60 million over four years, in addition previous HHS investments, to expand their laboratory facilities in Holly Springs, North Carolina to include a pandemic flu center and an emerging disease center. They’ll work with two nearby institutions: North Carolina State University and Duke University.
  • The largest award – $176 million over five years – went to Texas A&M University System, in College Station, Texas (pictured), and will go toward lab improvements and research among it’s 27 public and private partner organizations. Texas A&M will also construct a center devoted to pandemic flu research. The university has also secured $109 million from private and academic partners. Texas A&M will get $40 million in state funding.

HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will oversee all three centers, with the option to renew their contracts for up to 25 years.

“On an everyday basis these centers are going to be helping other developers of medical countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, on the same hand if there’s an emergency then we’ve got to be able to respond to things like pandemic influenza or other threats,” says BARDA’s director, Robin Robinson. “If it was 2003, and the centers were around, then we would be making SARS vaccines.”

HHS projects that the centers will be able to produce 25% of the country’s pandemic flu vaccine supply within four months of an outbreak, with the infrastructure in place by 2014 or 2015.

“What keeps me up at night, like many others, is the unknown,” says Robinson. “These centers address known and unknown threats with the latest technology to develop and manufacture vaccines and biologically based medicines providing more nimble and flexible response capability to produce more and better products.”

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