- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Biotech companies say they’re on the cusp of developing “radioprotectants,” drugs that guard against acute radiation syndrome. Since most people who die in a nuclear attack do so from radiation sickness, these drugs promise great benefits as safeguards against nuclear terrorism. If they work, they would be unprecedented. It goes without saying that the federal government should be doing its utmost to promote them.

Congress started, albeit belatedly, by authorizing funding for radioprotectants among other counter-WMD drugs in Project BioShield, a 10-year, $5.6 billion effort signed into law last July and currently under implementation. We criticized Congress last year for delaying it. Now, Congress can improve its record by passing a mostly unheralded bill introduced in the House this week. The bill, the Radioprotectant Procurement Act of 2005, would commit the government to developing and stockpiling the drugs.

Passing this bill would send biotech companies a clear signal that they will have a buyer if and when they produce a workable drug. Project BioShield already authorizes funding for these purposes, but to judge by the markets, analysts aren’t buying the commitment. Knowledgeable observers tell us the bill is meant to spur action after months of foot-dragging. Sponsored by a bipartisan group of 15 congressmen, it had a predecessor bill in the previous Congress sponsored by Pete Sessions, and in its current iteration is supported by an unusual combination of Republican stalwarts, including Dan Burton and Tom Davis on the one hand and liberal Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Susan Davis on the other.

The federal government’s thinking about handling nuclear terrorism in American cities is still in a formative phase, so there is opportunity to make radioprotectant promotion a priority. In fact, as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) presentations we’ve reviewed show, federal disaster planners still labor under the impression that they will be able to evacuate a major American city in the event of a nuclear terror strike. In one scenario we reviewed, a DHS program manager posits evacuating upwards of half a million people in the event a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear device detonated in a U.S. city. At the same time, he admits that infrastructure — roads, bridges and highways — will be devastated for up to a mile radius of the blast. It simply can’t be done. But radioprotectants would greatly reduce the need to evacuate.

In his first public address as DHS secretary, Michael Chertoff emphasized risks and tradeoffs. “We all live with a certain amount of risk,” he said Wednesday at George Washington University. “That means that we tolerate that something bad can happen; we adjust our lives based on probability; and we take reasonable precautions.” Radioprotectants could be just the kind of reasonable precautions we need.

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