Pentagon Biodefense Project Duplicates HHS Effort

David Mdzinarishvili/AP

After some talk of cooperation, initiatives took separate paths.

A Defense Department biodefense facility under construction in Florida is widely seen as unnecessarily duplicating work carried out by the Health and Human Services Department, the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday.

The Pentagon plant, once finished, would manufacture medical countermeasures for U.S. troops that could be used against biowarfare agents. Some of the expense of the facility is being paid for by reallocating Defense dollars intended for the purchase of new biodefense and chemical protection gear and equipment, according to government records and security experts.

The Health and Human Services Department is already cooperating with university scientists and pharmaceutical firms at a cost of billions of dollars to produce the same kinds of biowarfare countermeasures as the Pentagon facility is expected to manufacture.

Construction began late last month. The military is pursuing the project against the recommendation of a 2009 report ordered by the White House. The analysis by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development recommended that the government work with private industry to acquire the needed medicines as "contract manufacturing is less costly and timelier than constructing and operating a dedicated facility."

However, Andrew Weber, assistant Defense secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, pushed for the facility. He reportedly thought his HHS opposites were moving too slowly in securing steady sources for the production of vaccines and countermeasures.

"We started off talking about doing this together," said an anonymous HHS official who participated in the 2010 interagency biodefense discussions.

After a while, though, it became clear that Weber did not want the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority -- which funds the development of medicines for use against weapons of mass destruction -- to have superseding control over countermeasure production, according to the Times report.

The Pentagon "wanted to be in charge of their own fate," another unnamed HHS official said.

Weber's vision won the support of the White House in late 2010 when President Obama's then-chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, signed off on a document that said the Pentagon should "establish agile and flexible advanced development and manufacturing capabilities."

The department anticipates it will cost $40 million annually over the coming five years to run the Florida facility, said James Petro, a senior aide to Weber. Additional monies would be needed to purchase any medicines produced there.