Legislators propose measure to speed up biodefense program

Lawmakers have introduced legislation hoping to improve an effort to develop medical countermeasures for WMD attacks.

The bill, introduced in the House this week, is an attempt to address the lagging pace of Project Bioshield, a federal effort that has delivered little since it was launched nearly three years ago.

Designed to create an incentive for private enterprise to develop biological countermeasures to unconventional weapons, Bioshield dangles cash in front of biotech firms but gives no money until a product is delivered.

Officials at the helm of the $5.6 million program have spent less than 25 percent of their budget, and late last year the Health and Human Services Department abandoned a $1 billion contract with a California company to provide 75 million doses of an anthrax vaccine.

President Bush announced the Bioshield program during his State of the Union address in 2004, indicating the initiative would counter threats such as the plague and Ebola. To date, however, the program has done little to address these potential biological agents.

Bioshield's limited progress has attracted the attention of representatives on the House Homeland Security Committee who have highlighted the program as a focus for oversight and hearings this year.

"I'd just say I'm very concerned with some of the recent problems that have come to light with respect to the Bioshield project," Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., said earlier this month. "For example, we all recently heard about the cancellation of VaxGen's contract for a next generation anthrax vaccine and, at the time, this was the only major procurement contract under BioShield."

Langevin, chairman of the homeland security subcommittee covering emerging threats, is a cosponsor of the new legislation.

Under the current program, the Homeland Security Department first identifies and assesses threats and countermeasures. Once that is completed, the Health and Human Services Department then selects firms to develop specific countermeasures.

The recently introduced bill is designed to accelerate the threat-assessment process. To the extent possible, the Homeland Security Department will be required to clump possible countermeasures into groups that might be able to address more than one chemical, biological or radiological agent.

"Rather than examining each threat individually, we should be looking for ways to properly group these threats together," Langevin said this week. "This legislation will promote a more strategic use of our nation's resources when procuring medical countermeasures."

The bill would also require that homeland security assessments of the most high-risk agents be completed by the end of 2007.

"Effective medical countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents are a critical part of our nation's defense against terrorism, yet very few exist," said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, a member of the homeland security subcommittee for emerging threats.

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