- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

Finally. Almost 16 months after President Bush proposed Project Bioshield, the Senate finally got around to passing the measure last week. Although very belated, the Senate’s approval should be enough to ensure the continued development of promising counters to likely agents of bioterrorism.

Development of those drugs had been in some doubt due to seemingly endless delays in the Senate. As a consequence, pharmaceutical companies that had begun research into countermeasures against bioterrorism became increasingly anxious about the possibility that their products would have no market. One company had even put development of an antibody-based treatment against anthrax completely on hold.

Bioshield should give companies the financial assurances they need to complete the long, costly process of developing new remedies for likely agents of bioterrorism — including Ebola and smallpox as well as other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — by guaranteeing government purchase of successfully-developed countermeasures. While much of the $5.6 billion allocated for Bioshield over the next decade is likely to be spent on antibiotics and vaccines, some of the funds may also go towards chemical weapons treatments and anti-radiation drugs.

The Bioshield bill has a number of other important provisions. It gives the National Institutes of Health (NIH) greater flexibility in funding biodefense projects and accelerates the awarding of NIH grants and contracts to that end. The legislation also grants the Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to provide non-FDA approved treatments during a WMD emergency.

Although Project Bioshield easily passed the House last year, Democrats have long delayed its approval in the Senate. Final passage was secured after a colloquy — a gentleman’s agreement between senators — stipulating that funds dedicated to Bioshield would not be diverted into other projects. Once that understanding was reached, approval was overwhelming. The only legislator who did not vote for it was presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Differences between the House and the Senate bills are slight, which should make for a quick conference. But the House could simply approve the Senate’s bill and send it to the president. At worst, Mr. Bush is likely to have the measure on his desk by early June.

The president’s signature cannot come soon enough. The nation continues to live under the threat of biological terrorism. Al Qaeda agents are actively attempting to acquire such weapons. Biological weapons have already been unleashed against lawmakers. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said, “It’s on our own soil, it’s hit this nation, hit this Capitol, hit the entire East Coast, and indeed it was deadly.” The next attacks are likely to be far worse. The process of preparation against bioterrorism, which was almost brought to a stop by the Senate’s dithering, will now go forward thanks to passage of Project Bioshield.

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