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Over 700 Scientists Join in Petition Opposing U.S. Germ Research Policy

By Scott Shane

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

More than 700 scientists sent a petition on Monday to the director of the National Institutes of Health protesting what they said was the shift of tens of millions of dollars in federal research money since 2001 away from pathogens that cause major public health problems to obscure germs the government fears might be used in a bioterrorist attack.

The scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners and a biologist who will receive the National Medal of Science from President Bush this month, say grants for research on the bacteria that cause anthrax and five other diseases that are rare or nonexistent in the United States have increased fifteen-fold since 2001.

Over the same period, grants to study bacteria not associated with bioterrorism, including those causing diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis, have decreased 27 percent, the petition said.

The letter, which has been circulated among scientists for several weeks, was sent on Monday to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the director of the institutes, and was posted on Science magazine’s Web site.

“The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiologist research,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by 758 scientists who have received grants from the institutes or have served on panels helping to distribute them in the fields of bacteriology and mycology, the study of fungi.

Scientists specializing in viruses were not asked to sign because their grants are handled separately, but some virologists have expressed interest in organizing a similar petition, said Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University who was the primary organizer of the petition.

“A majority of the nation’s top microbiologists -- the very group that the Bush administration is counting on to carry out its biodefense research agenda -- dispute the premises and implementation of the biodefense spending,” Ebright said in an interview.

Zerhouni declined through a spokesman to comment on the letter. But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which controls about 95 percent of the institutes’ biodefense research spending, said the petition’s signers were mistaken on several points.

He said the $1.5 billion a year the administration decided to spend on biodefense research starting in 2003 was new money and was not taken from existing NIH programs. Moreover, he said, much of the biodefense research should also help protect against natural emerging disease threats.