Pentagon makes costly foray into biodefense drug business The initiative defies the advice of experts, duplicates another agency's work and shifts money away from gear for troops.
By David Willman
November 23, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Despite intense pressure to hold down federal spending, the Defense Department is launching a high-priced effort to create its own production pipeline for vaccines and biodefense drugs — an initiative that defies the advice of government-hired experts and duplicates what another agency is doing.
Construction began in late October on a plant in north Florida that will produce flu vaccine and specialized medicines for the Pentagon to protect military personnel against germ warfare agents.
To begin paying for the initiative, the Obama administration has quietly shifted millions of dollars that had been budgeted for better masks, boots, early-warning sensors and other equipment for troops at risk of exposure to chemical or biological weapons, according to government documents and defense specialists.
The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, is on track to spend billions of dollars to produce the same types of medicines in collaboration with private drug companies and university researchers.
The overlapping efforts are precisely what some policymakers have warned against. The Defense Department program also flies in the face of an analysis, commissioned by the White House, that examined ways the government could bolster production of vaccines and biodefense drugs.
The 2009 analysis recommended against establishing a government-controlled facility, akin to what the Pentagon is doing, saying that contracting with private manufacturers would produce new drugs more quickly and at a lower cost.
The 112-page report has not been shared with Congress or previously publicized. A copy of the document was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The Pentagon initiative has been championed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Andrew C. Weber, a presidential appointee. The Times' request for comment from Weber was referred to a top aide, James B. Petro.
In an interview, Petro said the Florida facility was needed to make medicines that the military could not rely on Health and Human Services or others to provide. The goal, he said, was to do "a more efficient and effective job" of acquiring the products.
"It's about making sure that our men and women in uniform have the protection that they need against these threats," said Petro, adding that Weber was aware of the 2009 analysis and that it had informed his staff's "strategic thinking."
Shifting funds from protective gear to help pay for the manufacturing effort was a "portfolio management decision" intended to "achieve balance in yielding both medical and physical defense equipment," Petro said.