It’s been almost five months since President Bush called on Congress to enhance Americans’ security against bioterrorism by passing what he dubbed “Project Bioshield” in his State of the Union address. While Congress has slowly moved the legislation forward, it has passed neither chamber. Right now, it appears unlikely to pass before Congress returns from its July 4 recess — if at all.
Further delay (or even worse, failure) of the measure would be a matter of no small significance, since the countermeasures Project Bioshield will fund will take years to develop. But, the biological weapons that terrorists probably already possess could be deployed at practically any time.
The problem is that pharmaceutical companies have seen little commercial potential in treatments for the Plague, anthrax or Ebola, and therefore have not invested the millions of dollars or undertaken the years of research required for their development. That would change under the president’s plan, which would allocate about $6 billion over the next decade to fund the development of treatments and vaccines against agents thought to be most likely for use against Americans. It would guarantee a government purchase and a profit margin for successfully manufactured products, even if they take years to develop.
The Senate bill (S.15), which passed the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in March by a 21-0 vote, would create a permanent, indefinite appropriation. However, the bill has been held up repeatedly by Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who opposes the mandatory funding provisions. Similar concerns have held up the House bill, H.R. 2122. It provides Bioshield dollars through an unusual hybrid measure, which designates such spending as discretionary but sets up a special reserve fund from which that money flows. H.R. 2122, which has the support of Mr. Byrd, was passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in May, but is still under consideration in the Select Committee on Homeland Security.
At a recent meeting with editorial writers from The Washington Times, Raymond Gilmartin, CEO of Merck & Co., said that one of the best ways Congress could encourage the development of anti-bioterrorism vaccines would be passage of Project Bioshield. While pharmaceutical companies said that they would have preferred that provisions limiting liability be kept in the bills, they proved too controversial in both chambers.
But specific liability protection is not nearly as important as the general bioterrorism protection that passage of Project Bioshield would provide. While lawmakers have made holding the line on spending a top priority, terrorists are making it their first priority to develop biological weapons. Congress needs to move quickly to support Project Bioshield, an essential component of U.S. defense against bioterrorism.