One of the most politically-connected yet scandal ridden vaccine companies in the united states, with troubling ties to the 2001 anthrax attacks and opioid crisis, is set to profit handsomely from the current coronavirus crisis.
by Whitney Webb and Raul Diego
Part 10 - Biosolutions BioSheild
Just months before the Pentagon’s BioThrax vaccine program was deemed illegal, Congress passed the Project BioShield Act, an act that was largely written by Emergent BioSolution lobbyists and greatly influenced by Robert Kadlec, who was then serving as the Homeland Security Council’s Director of Biodefense. The goal of the act was to allocate $5 billion to be used to purchase vaccines, including millions of doses of anthrax vaccine, and stockpile them in the event of a future bioterrorist attack. Given that these vaccines have a limited shelf life (three to four years in BioThrax’s case), the stockpile would continually need to be renewed as its contents gradually expired.
Not long after BioShield was signed into law, Emergent BioSolutions co-founded a lobby group called the Alliance for Biosecurity as part of its strategy to easily secure lucrative BioShield contracts. That lobby group saw Emergent BioSolutions join forces with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity, which was created in 2003 and populated with former members of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. At the time, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center was led by Tara O’Toole.
Though Emergent BioSolutions had contacts with the key organizations and people in the biodefense-industrial complex, the Bush administration and the military, BioShield initially didn’t go as planned for the company. Instead of pumping even more money into the controversial BioThrax, HHS decided to invest in a new anthrax vaccine that involved fewer doses and fewer adverse side effects, and thus less controversy.
In November 2004, HHS through BioShield awarded VaxGen Inc. a $877.5 million contract to produce a recombinant anthrax vaccine and was the first contract made via BioShield. In great contrast to Emergent’s past BioThrax contracts with the government, the VaxGen contract did not provide the company with government money until the vaccine was approved and subsequently delivered.
The VaxGen contract greatly concerned BioPort/Emergent Biosolutions for obvious reasons. In order to avoid losing their vaccine monopoly, they invested heavily in lobbying and spent $5.29 million on lobbyists from 2004 to 2007. By comparison, over that same period, VaxGen spent $720,000 on lobbyists.
One of those lobbyists was Jerome Hauer, who was also added to Emergent’s board shortly after leaving HHS. Despite Hauer having supported a new anthrax vaccine other than BioThrax while he had worked at HHS, Hauer suddenly began to insist that BioThrax was the solution. He also demanded that his replacement at HHS, Stewart Simonson, who was ultimately responsible for VaxGen’s BioShield contract, be stripped of his authority. Other lobbyists hired by Emergent at the time included two former aides to then-Vice President Dick Cheney and former aides to influential members of Congress.
The hiring of Hauer and others well-connected to the Bush administration and Congress was just part of Emergent’s aggressive lobbying against the VaxGen contract, as the company also employed mafia-esque tactics, telling lawmakers and government officials that U.S. civilians “were at risk of death without an immediately expanded stockpile of [BioThrax] anthrax vaccine” and threatening to “stop making the vaccine if the government chose not to buy its product for the stockpile.”
The war between Emergent BioSolutions and VaxGen spread to Congressional hearings, where Congressmen who had received thousands from Emergent’s then-CEO attacked the VaxGen BioShield contract, with one calling it “highly suspect” and angrily demanding that HHS explain why it had not purchased more BioThrax. It also spread to the press, where Emergent lobbyists wrote Op-Eds in influential newspapers.
Emergent even found unlikely supporters in “progressive” journalists like Jeremy Scahill, who wrote an article for The Nation in which he praised Jerome Hauer, framing him as a champion of public health preparedness who was at odds with Bush-era neocons (despite his membership in organizations stuffed with those same neocons). Scahill also strongly criticized Hauer’s successor Stewart Simonson and the VaxGen contract.
Scahill did not mention in his report that Hauer was then working as a lobbyist for Emergent BioSolutions or was a member of its board, despite interviewing him for the piece. Scahill didn’t even mention Emergent BioSolutions (or its previous name BioPort) once in the entire article, despite it being VaxGen’s main competitor.
Finally, in 2006, HHS terminated VaxGen’s contract after the company hit a developmental snag with its vaccine, declining to offer them the type of lifelines that Emergent BioSolutions had received on numerous occasions under its previous name BioPort.
After VaxGen’s contract with HHS was crushed, Emergent BioSolution’s anthrax vaccine monopoly remained intact, at least for a time. However, PharmAthene, another biotechnology company that had co-formed the Alliance for Biosecurity lobby group with Emergent, soon announced its plans to develop its own recombinant anthrax vaccine. This prompted Emergent to end up buying the essentially bankrupt VaxGen and acquiring the very VaxGen anthrax vaccine it had spent millions of dollars over several years to discredit.
A few years later, Emergent’s competitors made inroads with the Pentagon, with the military offering contracts for the anthrax vaccine developed by PharmAthene and another manufactured by PaxVax. Emergent aggressively challenged its competitors or bought them out in order to retain its monopoly, while also developing three new anthrax vaccines (one of which was the VaxGen vaccine) to satisfy government demand for a new anthrax vaccine. Only one, dubbed NuThrax, ever made any progress.
NuThrax, a combination of BioThrax and an adjuvant, would be yet another gold mine for Emergent Biosolutions. The company received $127 million from HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for early development. Meanwhile, they began to dramatically scale up their production of BioThrax with even more grants from BARDA. Then, in 2016, it received an additional $198 million from HHS for further development of NuThrax as well as a government promise to purchase up to 50 million doses for the national biodefense stockpile. That promise was made as part of a contract valued at up to $1.6 billion and was also made before NuThrax received approval by the FDA. To date, NuThrax still remains unapproved by the FDA.