The threat is silent, almost imperceptible, to those of us who work outside the realm of national security. We don’t awaken to the notion that our air could be poisoned, our water contaminated.

Yet every day, we face potential terrorist attacks of the biological kind: anthrax, botulism, plague and smallpox, to name the most likely agents. All are prime weapons because they are cheap, easy to produce, simple to administer and difficult to detect.

“Today, one man can make war. A lucky bio-buffoon could kill 400,000 people,” the oft quoted microbiologist and Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg famously said.

With that opening statement, Robert Kadlec, Ph.D., kicked off a day-long symposium exploring the bioterrorism challenges our defense and military agencies are charged with assessing and solving on a daily basis.

The Medical, Biomedical & Biodefense: Support to the Warfighter Symposium drew experts from government, industry and academia to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center on Wednesday, the second day of an event that started on the North Carolina State University campus.

The event brought more than 125 participants together to share their collective expertise and knowledge; to build bridges and break down barriers that separate them from collaborating on this intractable problem. It also helped highlight North Carolina’s life science capabilities and interest in participating in the national effort to avoid harm as much as possible.

No easy fixes

The bioterrorism risk is of such magnitude that dozens of federal agencies, hundreds of companies, and thousands of scientists focus their collective brainpower and resources on studying potential threats, surveilling the landscape, preventing attacks and planning for response and recovery.

Still, the problem eludes simply fixes. Bioterrorism threats are difficult to prepare for and nearly impossible to predict, and efforts to address them have not been sustained over the long haul.

“The U.S. is not prepared to deal with a biological weapon attack and lacks a centralized leader for biodefense as well as a strategic plan and budget,” said Kadlec, a keynote speaker who serves as deputy staff director, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Summarizing a report issued by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, Kadlec noted that the U.S. has not given biodefense proper attention or resources.

Moreover, the issue should be devoid of political rhetoric and wrangling.

“Biodefense has nothing to do with policy,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, acting director of the federal agency BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) and a symposium panelist. “It’s not like Republicans are for Anthrax and Democrats are for Smallpox.

We have to make the case for long-term investment in events whose likelihood we cannot quantify or prepare for. We must maximize our preparedness and respond to threats in perpetuity.”

Hatchett was thrust into the world of biodefense after his experience at ground zero following September 11, which exposed him to the stark realities of a terrorist attack. Now at BARDA, his mission is to partner with private sector companies to advance the development and purchase of vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools to handle public health crises.

One mission, many hands

Panelists agreed that collaboration between government, industry and academia is essential to successfully managing the threat of bioterrorism.

Data should be shared more freely, and innovative partnerships must be formed to move ideas from the lab to the front lines to protect warfighters and civilians alike. Conceivably, companies could mix and match their research programs, using antigens from one company and antibodies from another to speed the development of a new vaccine, noted Hatchett.

“Good ideas don’t know national boundaries or corporate charters,” said presenter David Williams, senior medical acquisition/portfolio manager for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense.

Despite the current limitations, noteworthy strides are being made in biodefense, largely spurred by industry-government collaboration and cross pollination of scientific principles.

At BioCryst, government-sponsored research has yielded a new antiviral drug that shows activity against both Marburg virus and Ebola. By targeting viral RNA polymerase that is common to all RNA viruses, the compound could potentially be applied across a wide range of pathogens instead of requiring targeted vaccines for each respective virus.

At UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, scientists have moved two drugs for pox viruses into phase 1 trials. They are also applying the principles learned from the study of Dengue fever to the Zika virus in the hopes of speeding the development of a vaccine.

At Seqirus, scientists are using “synthetic seed technology” to make their own virus in a matter of days instead of waiting weeks or months to retrieve viral particles from remote parts of the world. This new technology will enable unprecedented rapid response to emerging threats.

By the end of the day, nearly two dozen military experts, scientists, industry experts and government officials had shared their perspectives on the growing threat of bioterrorism and how to best address it.

The symposium was co-hosted by Sen. Richard Burr, Sen. Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the North Carolina Military Business Center, the North Carolina Military Foundation and the University of North Carolina.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center