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Countering Bioterrorism

by Rudy M. Baum
August 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 33

It has become cliché that 9/11 "changed everything." Clichés often exist, however, because they contain a strong element of fact.

The two stories in this week's Business Department well illustrate how the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the subsequent distribution of anthrax spores through the mail have changed the business landscape in the U.S. and the world. In "Countering Bioterrorism," Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch examines how major government contracts are creating a market for technologies to defend the nation against bioagents that terrorists could disperse (see page 12).

Reisch writes that the Project BioShield Act of 2004 commits $5.6 billion over 10 years to developing such technologies. "The legislation authorizes the government to continue to build a stockpile of vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox, chemical agents, and radiological weapons," Reisch reports. "Without the government, no mainstream market otherwise exists for such medical countermeasures."

Another law now before Congress--the Biological, Chemical & Radiological Weapons Countermeasure Research Act--further encourages biodefense work by offering firms liability and intellectual property protections and tax incentives. It is the genius of capitalism that, where there is money to be made, companies will develop products to meet the need. Reisch looks at a number of companies that have responded to these incentives by developing innovative tools to protect against these potential threats.

The genius of capitalism doesn't thrive naturally in Russia, where six decades of communist rule effectively stifled the entrepreneurship that seems to blossom so easily in the U.S. In "Swords to Plowshares," Senior Editor Rick Mullin profiles a U.S. State Department program that goes beyond the laboratory bench in its efforts to prevent proliferation of bioagents (see page 15).

The State Department's Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction has developed a program called the BioIndustry Initiative (BII) that is working to foster actual business ventures at biological production facilities in the former Soviet Union. Mullin writes: "The business angle adds to the complexity of securing biotechnology in the former Soviet Union, where science and research were well funded for decades but where an infrastructure for science-based business is completely lacking. Standards for everything from growing of laboratory animals to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals need to be established, and scientists have to learn business basics--perhaps a bigger culture shock in the former Soviet states than anywhere else."

The Bush Administration is taking a prudent course in programs such as Project BioShield and BII to engage businesses in the U.S. in developing necessary technologies to protect citizens against bioterrorism and in productively employing Russian scientists who might otherwise be tempted to turn their skills to dangerous purposes.

Also in this week's issue is our annual "Employment & Salary Survey" by Editor-at-Large Michael Heylin (see page 26). The feature is based on the American Chemical Society's annual survey of the salaries and employment status of its members in the domestic workforce.

The story the numbers tell is somewhat discouraging, with 3.6% of ACS members unemployed as of March 1, 2004, a record high in the 30-plus-year history of the survey. The percentage with full-time jobs was at an all-time low of 90.9%, down from 92.1% in 2003. The median base salary of all ACS members with full-time jobs who responded to this year's survey was $82,000, which was 2.5% higher than the $80,000 median salary in 2003. Heylin writes that "the 2.5% increase was higher than the 1.7% rate of inflation. But it was considerably below the 3.5% average annual gain for the past decade."

While chemists are still doing significantly better than the overall workforce, where unemployment stands at 5.6%, the chemical profession faces a continued erosion of jobs. Heylin reports that employment in the chemical industry as measured by the Labor Department is down from 701,000 at the end of 2000 to 595,000 in July 2004.

There are, as always, lots of interesting data in the tables compiled by Heylin. He concludes, however, that "the latest salary and employment survey indicates that ACS members face a still-weakening job situation that has crumbled badly over the past three years."

Thanks for reading.


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