Wednesday, December 20, 2006


From today's New York Times:

U.S. Cancels Order for 75 Million Doses of Anthrax Vaccine

In a major setback to the Bush administration’s biodefense efforts, the government announced Tuesday that it had canceled an order for 75 million doses of a new anthrax vaccine....

VaxGen, which has no other major customers and has never made a successful vaccine or drug, was supposed to deliver enough vaccine to inoculate 25 million Americans after an anthrax attack, each with three doses.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services terminated the $877 million contract Tuesday after VaxGen failed to start required clinical trials....

This is the second high-profile failure for VaxGen. The 11-year-old company’s planned AIDS vaccine was abandoned in 2003 after it proved ineffective....

It may be just as well that those clinical trials never happened. As Harper's recently noted:

VaxGen's past record when it comes to human testing doesn't inspire much confidence. To test its AIDS vaccine, the firm sent researchers to Bangkok. VaxGen used junkies as guinea pigs, paying them about $9 per clinic visit, and generously offered a bonus -- paid in rice -- to people who brought along friends for more tests. "It tracked addicts into jails if they were arrested during the experiment," the Washington Post wrote of the program in 2000, "so that shots and blood tests could be administered."

But let's backtrack. How did a company with no other major customers and no success at producing vaccines -- and that has been delisted by NASDAQ for poor accounting practices -- get this gig? Harper's again:

VaxGen's competitors suspected that the firm, in winning the anthrax contract, may have received a helping hand from Dr. Phil Russell, formerly a top contracting official at HHS who was involved in the BioShield project. Forbes describes Russell as a "long time acquaintance" of VaxGen CEO Lance Gordon....

And as The Nation pointed out last year, Russell was a top deputy to Stewart Simonson:

Meet Stewart Simonson. He's the official charged by Bush with "the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies"--a well-connected, ideological, ambitious Republican with zero public health management or medical expertise, whose previous job was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. When Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently speculated, "If something comes along that is truly a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence," many of those professionally concerned with such scenarios couldn't help thinking of Simonson. They recalled his own unsettling words at a recent Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on government response to a chemical or biological attack: "We're learning as we go."

"Great. What we need in the middle of a crisis is somebody learning on the job at that high level of government," says Jerry Hauer, Simonson's immediate predecessor at the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (OPHEP) and a veteran public health expert....

"He's a political hack, a sycophant," says Ed Garvey, a prominent Wisconsin attorney and the state's former deputy attorney general. "People just laughed when he was appointed to Amtrak, but when the word came out that he was in charge of bioterrorism, it turned to alarm. When you realize that people's lives are at stake, it's frightening. It's just one of those moments when you say, Oh, my God."

(Simonson resigned in March.)

No qualifications, please -- we're Bushies.

By the way, read the Nation story, which suggests that the Bioshield program is bound up in Dick Cheney's and Scooter Libby's fixation on biowar, which in turn was part of the effort to sell the Iraq War by persuading Americans that Saddam had WMDs. (Curiously, Libby's close friend Judy Miller makes a cameo appearance, participating in a war game in the role of a reporter covering a mock biological attack.)

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