The bioterror expert rent-seeker

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle at 3:12 pm by George Smith

The American bioterror defense effort is riddled with rent-seekers, individuals and businesses who spent the better part of the war on terror years inflating threats to increase spending in the field.

Most recently DD blog covered the company Soligenix which promptly used the recent ricin case to go looking for funding in the mainstream press.

Indeed, anthrax mailer Bruce Ivins can be thought of as the most successful bioterrorism research rent-seeker. Part of his motivation in mailing anthrax, according to FBI reasoning, was to save interest in research and development on the anthrax vaccine, of which he was a major part.

Ivins was spectacularly successful. The national panic over the anthrax mailings virtually created the modern bioterror defense industry in the United States.

Over the weekend, Los Angeles Times reporter David Willman, who was the first to publish news on Ivins and his suicide in 2008, went public with a story that fingered another big name from bioterrorism defense, former secretary of the navy and pre-presidential Obama security advisor, Richard Danzig. (His biography at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity is here.)

“Anthrax drug brings $334 million to Pentagon advisor’s biotech firm,” reads the headline in the newspaper.

Danzig, a lawyer, made himself into an expert on bioterrorism — the kind of expert who always insists a catastrophic attack was perhaps imminent and certainly probable, that such attacks were easy to mount.

From the LAT:

Over the last decade, former Navy Secretary Richard J. Danzig, a prominent lawyer, presidential advisor and biowarfare consultant to the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, has urged the government to counter what he called a major threat to national security.

Terrorists, he warned, could easily engineer a devastating killer germ: a form of anthrax resistant to common antibiotics.

U.S. intelligence agencies have never established that any nation or terrorist group has made such a weapon, and biodefense scientists say doing so would be very difficult. Nevertheless, Danzig has energetically promoted the threat — and prodded the government to stockpile a new type of drug to defend against it …

Danzig did this while serving as a director of a biotech startup that won $334 million in federal contracts to supply just such a drug, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

By his own account, Danzig encouraged Human Genome Sciences Inc. to develop the compound, and from 2001 through 2012 he collected more than $1 million in director’s fees and other compensation from the company, records show.

The LATimes account is damning. By all accounts, Richard Danzig’s career as a bioterror defense advisor should be over. But nothing will happen. A quick read of Danzig’s biography would convince most that he is too important in the national security megaplex. Of course, he has already made his pile.

“Dr. Philip K. Russell, a biodefense official in the George W. Bush administration who attended invitation-only seminars on bioterrorism led by Danzig, said he did not know about Danzig’s tie to the biotech company until The Times asked him about it,” continued Willlman.

“Holy smoke—that was a horrible conflict of interest,” the scientist told the newspaper.

During the salad years of the war on terror Danzig peddled a talk and paper entitled “Catastrophic Bioterrorism — What is to be done?”

In the paper Danzig recommended a counter-measure drug to anti-biotic resistant anthrax be developed as soon as possible. He added that making antibiotic resistant anthrax was an elementary process, one that could be performed by a high school student.

In all this time, Danzig did not inform many, if any people, that he was on the board of directors of Human Genome.

“A Times search found seven papers Danzig had written on bioterrorism since 2001, reported Willman for the Times. “In only one of those did he disclose his tie to Human Genome.”

Danzig told the Times he had noted his position with the firm in confidential forms required annually by the government.

During the war on terror years Danzig made the rounds in the press and consultations to the government and industry, inflating the threat with claims that anthrax posed a greater potential threat than 9/11 and that bioterrorists could attack again and again with it, a process called “reloading.”

Bioterrorism “reloading” was also a potential scenario fast peddled by Tara O’Toole, a research scientist who made the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity famous during the Bush administration. O’Toole is now a director at the Department of Homeland Security, a position that has required she keep her opinions on catastrophic bioterrorism out of the press.

Wrote Willman for the Times:

The anthrax letter attacks, Danzig wrote in his “Catastrophic Bioterrorism” paper, exposed national security vulnerabilities “greater than those associated with 9/11.” He argued that the country’s defenses were inadequate.

Doses of anthrax vaccine would have to be given weeks or months in advance of an attack. As for antibiotics, Danzig suggested that even a novice terrorist could “readily” make a resistant strain.

“Development of an antibiotic-resistant strain … is quite easy,” Danzig wrote. “Even at the high school level, biology students understand that an antibiotic-resistant strain can be developed.”

This is something beyond the capability of a high school student or even someone with graduate training.”

“It’s not a trivial endeavor,” Paul Keim, a Northern Arizona University geneticist and anthrax expert, told Willman.

“This is something beyond the capability of a high school student or even someone with graduate training.”

The entire piece on Richard Danzig is here at the Los Angeles Times.

Unfortunately, readers know from experience what always happens in cases such as this.

Nothing. Conflicts of interest are like bread on the table — the staff of life in the national security megaplex.

It doesn’t matter if important people in unique positions to make policy are involved in businesses that profit directly from their policy advice and lobbying. That is just the way things work in the United States.

Recently — on bioterror rent-seeking, penny-ante stuff at Soligenix, which is not worth even a tenth in market cap value of the government contract awarded to Human Genome.

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