Can Venture Capital Bolster America's Biodefenses?

By Joseph Straw

The H1N1 “swine” flu pandemic illustrated critical gaps in response capability that the public health and homeland security sectors had warned about for years. Among them: the United States relies almost entirely on foreign suppliers for influenza vaccines and, perhaps as important, production of vaccines for a novel disease strain can take as long as six months.

The gaps have their roots not only in science but also economics. While demand for seasonal flu vaccine is reliable, companies can’t profit from developing the science and capacity to quickly create and manufacture medicines for as-yet unknown diseases.

“There hasn’t been an incentive for vaccine manufacturers or drug manufacturers to get involved in this work that’s critical for national security,” says Colonel Randall Larsen (USAF-ret.), executive director of the bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, formerly the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism (WMD commission).

To close the gap, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wants to reinvent the country’s medical countermeasures enterprise, from new doctrines for regulatory approvals to nimble, domestic manufacturing capability developed in partnership with the private sector, according to the findings of the agency’s Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise Review.

To spur scientific innovations that might cut vaccine delivery times by weeks or even months, HHS wants to borrow a model that bore fruit for another federal agency, the CIA. To seed information innovation, the CIA formed what would eventually be known as In-Q-Tel, an independent, agency-funded venture capital management corporation that invests in unclassified work at promising technology firms.

(To finish reading "A New Plan for Biodefense Innovation" from the December edition of Security Management, click here.)

♦ Photo of Tamiflu capsule by timsnell/Flickr


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