Features

Ripple effects

National | The 9/11 attacks spur private-sector biotech research and inspire would-be firemen, but they fail to change Americans' taste in automobiles

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

and Timothy Lamer-
Untapped expertise
The economy may be in the doldrums, but there is a biotech bright side. The biotech industry is in the best financial shape of its 25-year history, according to an Ernst and Young report released last week. The 9/11 terrorist attacks may further expand a private-sector biotech mission that until now has been surprisingly small: combating bioterrorism. Private-sector biotechnology "has not had a lot of play in this area," said Walt Busbee, who chairs the biotech committee of the National Defense Industrial Association, a lobbying group representing 900 defense contractors. Before the attacks, Mr. Busbee had expected a budget cut of about 25 percent. He now expects the opposite: increased spending, especially on creating vaccines and drug therapies that would fight the bio-agents that terrorists might deploy. A cadre of legislators in Washington is pushing hard for $1 billion in emergency funding to combat biological warfare. Private-sector labs, such as Fremont, Calif.-based Abgenix Inc., are ready to go to work. "We are prepared to ramp up our efforts on behalf of the government," said Geoff Davis, Abgenix's chief scientific officer. Since 2000, Abgenix has supplied the U.S. Army with hundreds of mice specially bred to produce human antibodies for use in combating smallpox, anthrax, and Ebola. Now, Mr. Davis hopes the government will fund an expansion of that program. The government is also considering other cutting-edge private-sector innovations for its bioterror fight. Among them is a handheld germ detector manufactured by SRI, a biotech firm in Menlo Park, Calif. "The private sector has not been tapped," said Tom Inglespy of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. In heroes' shoes
The City of New York lost nearly 350 firefighters in the World Trade Center attack. Now plenty of people want to fill those heroes' boots, according to Kerri Muli, an investigation coordinator with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). "I'm getting a call about every five minutes from someone who wants to be a firefighter," said Ms. Muli, whose job includes FDNY human resources functions. "These aren't just calls from the U.S.-I'm getting calls from all over the world." One man called from Switzerland to say he is a fireman in his own country, and now wants to become a New York City firefighter. An American woman called to say her husband had always wanted to be a fireman, but Ms. Muli told her he was past the age limit. But FDNY will not hire any of those newly passionate about fighting fires anytime soon. Using standard hiring practices, FDNY is working from a pool of about 6,000 applicants who already have passed a required written exam. The department is, however, accelerating its hiring pace since the World Trade Center disaster. Prior to the attack, no new firefighter training classes-each of which normally accommodates 150 trainees-were scheduled until next year. Now the department plans to convene a new class this month for 300 students, as well as double-sized classes in January and April 2002. FDNY also promoted 168 firefighters to officer rank on Sept. 16, said department commissioner Thomas Von Essen, "to help replenish the ranks with leadership." Safety first
Car buyers continue to frustrate liberal environmentalists. According to government statistics released last week, only 6 percent of the new 2002 models can achieve 30 miles per gallon. The overall average for the new vehicles, which are currently heading to showrooms, is 21 mpg. This, said the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker, "is really appalling." But others argued that the American appetite for big, gas-guzzling automobiles is more rational than are liberal fears of fossil fuels, since such vehicles tend to be the safest in accidents. "There is very little consumer demand for the high-mileage vehicles because of the trade-offs," said Jeffrey Miller of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice. Car buyers, he said, "want size, they want safety, they want quality." The most fuel-efficient cars remained among the least popular: The Honda Insight coupe and the Toyota Prius sedan, both hybrid gas- and electric-powered cars, had 64 mpg and 48 mpg, respectively, in combined city and highway driving.

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