DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)--Iowa scientists developing vaccines to protect Americans against two deadly animal diseases said May 4 they were surprised to be passed over for Homeland Security funding.
Iowa State University, home to one of the nation's premier veterinary research labs, had sought funding to complete work on vaccines to guard against Nipah virus and Rift Valley fever, both identified as priorities by a White House science panel.
But ISU didn't make the list. Instead, Texas A&M got $18 million to study foreign animal diseases, including Rift Valley fever, foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza, and Minnesota got $15 million to study ways to protect against food contamination.
The decision to omit the ISU proposal from the list puzzled Jim Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health.
"We thought we had a particularly strong proposal for developing key vaccines and anti-viral therapies on a quick timeline with several collaborating partners around the United States," said Roth, a researcher in immunology and veterinary medicine.
Roth said the Bush administration in January identified both Nipah virus and Rift Valley fever as priorities because they could be spread intentionally by terrorists.
"We're extremely vulnerable," Roth said.
The Nipah virus is carried by pigs. An outbreak in Malaysia in 1999 forced officials there to destroy 890,000 hogs. More than 250 people became ill and about 100 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rift Valley fever, which affects cattle and sheep, is a hemorrhagic fever carried by mosquitoes. It causes bleeding from the nose and eyes. An outbreak in Kenya in 1997 killed 170 people.
"We need tools available immediately to stop the spread and bring them under control," Roth said. "Without these kinds of tools, the only alternative is mass slaughter of all exposed animals."
Roth said a National Institutes of Health grant has given ISU a head start in the research for a vaccine for Nipah virus. He said more money is needed to carry the work into development of a vaccine.
An experimental vaccine for Rift Valley fever has been developed by a scientist at the University of Texas at Galveston and Rothsaid ISU was prepared to refine it into a vaccine that could be tested and ready for stockpiling within two to three years.
Gov. Tom Vilsack said May 4 that ISU, home to the National Centers for Animal Health, is perfectly positioned to develop such tools in the war on terrorism.
"Because of the advantage Iowa State has in the development of these vaccines, they can be developed more quickly--which means every single one of us will be safer more quickly. And isn't that what homeland security is about?" he said.
At least, he said, the urgency of the projects should have made ISU a finalist in the selection process. The university was notified in March that it was not a finalist. The grants were announced last week.
Vilsack said May 4 he has drafted a letter to President Bush challenging the decision not to consider ISU for the funding.
Homeland Defense officials said 23 proposals were submitted by U.S. universities and seven were selected for site visits.
"Every proposal was treated very seriously and went through a rigorous analysis," said Donald Tighe, Homeland Defense department spokesman.
He said one of the strengths of the Texas A&M proposal was its relationship with the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a Homeland Security lab in New York. Tighe said the Texas A&M proposal also includes research and development of animal vaccines.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, said the administration's decision not to consider ISU was a tremendous disappointment.
"It was my understanding that this was a decision solely based on merit," Grassley said. "With the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, it seemed only natural for the research center to be based at Iowa State."
The federal government has committed nearly $500 million to upgrade the Ames center, which includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Sciences Laboratory, National Animal Disease Center and the Center for Veterinary Biologics.
Roth said even though ISU didn't get the Homeland Security money, he continues to seek funding from other federal sources.
"Our work urgently needs to move forward and we're working with federal agencies and our congressional delegation to see if there's a way to get this funding to move forward," he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, said he plans to work on finding money later this year to ensure ISU's research into vaccines can continue.