- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Last year, Congress started to provide protections to the nation against the threat of weapons of mass destruction(WMD). It appropriated $5.6 billion in discretionary funding over the next 10 years for Project Bioshield through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill, which President Bush signed in October. Unfortunately, Congress did not finish the job.

While $890 million has been allocated for fiscal 2004 for drug companies to start developing countermeasures against attacks with chemical, biological and radiological weapons, the actual authority to spend it is still awaiting final action in Congress. The legislation authorizing Project Bioshield passed the House last year, but it is still pending in the Senate, as it has been for several months.

The DHS appropriation carries an implicit authorization, and the two measures allocate the same amount of money for the development of antiterrorism medicines, ranging from anti-radiological medicines to antidotes against plague. Several are already under development, but bureaucrats have been hesitant to sign contracts without explicit statutory authority.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are understandably reluctant to spend millions of dollars developing therapies for which there might not be a market. Project Bioshield will change that by guaranteeing companies that successfully developed countermeasures will be procured by the government.

Additional delays could be deadly, as the discovery of ricin — for which there is no antidote and no cure — in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office last week demonstrated. Medicines against such agents are not merely palliatives, they are also de facto deterrents, since terrorists seem unlikely to strike with weapons for which there are known treatments. Research funded by Project Bioshield may also lead to better understanding of naturally occurring infectious diseases.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the government is already hiring biological experts to assist in the development of such countermeasures. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are reportedly working closely with legislators to secure passage of the bill. Stewart Simonson, special counsel to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, recently said, “I think we are 98 percent there, but let me tell you, that last 2 percent is something.”

It is critical that that 2 percent be closed soon. Lawmakers are hoping that pre-conference negotiations will allow swift passage of authorization for Project Bioshield once it is arrives on the Senate floor. While senators are dithering and bureaucrats are waiting for the proper forms to be filled out, terrorists are at work on WMD. Congress must finish its remaining work on Project Bioshield.

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