After the wake-up call of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed, the U.S. government has focused on the potential of calamity from bioweapons or infectious diseases. As long-term threats go, these are as worrisome as the prospect of terrorists obtaining a nuclear weapon.
It is very much in the national interest to develop vaccines to counter bio-threats -- and Pittsburgh, a center of the health sciences, is well placed to play a larger part in that effort. Last week, a Senate subcommittee heard a pitch from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to build a large-scale vaccine production center in Allegheny County.
The biodefense facility, which would cost $830 million ($580 million from the U.S. government and the rest from UPMC), would have eight vaccine-producing suites each equipped with resources and staff. If a particular threat develops, production could be stopped and efforts redeployed to meet it.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who joined with fellow Democrat Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless in holding the subcommittee hearing, correctly observed that UPMC has a "unique advantage" in being one of nation's largest medical centers and being in close association with the University of Pittsburgh, which is home to the Center for Vaccine Research.
If the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services agree and Congress funds the project, UPMC would put in a bid and have to beat out the likely competition. If that succeeds, the project would give a big boost to the regional economy with 1,000 well-paid high-tech jobs and another 6,000 indirect jobs. As time goes on, those jobs could multiply tenfold, the subcommittee hearing was told.
The proposal is in a preliminary stage and a location for the new facility has not been chosen, although the site of the former Pittsburgh airport terminal in Moon is a possibility.
If UPMC does succeed, it will serve the interests of both Pittsburgh and the nation.