- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The threat of the avian flu virus is real, as Senate Majority Leader Bill First explains in this section, and could potentially claim millions of American lives. No vaccine for the avian flu exists. The country needs biotechs, academia and government to cooperate to create the vaccines and other compounds needed to fight it.

In that regard, the avian flu is just one of many potential biological problems — whether natural or man-made — that we must grapple with. To deal with the avian flu and the others — anthrax, smallpox and radiological threats, to name three — the United States must update the 2004 Bioshield law. That law was a good start, but not nearly enough.

The record on implementing Bioshield was not encouraging. For instance, it took three years and eight months after the October 2001 anthrax attacks before the Department of Health and Human Services finally stockpiled the first doses of anthrax vaccine. Beyond the obvious no-defenses problem, this was regrettable because it disheartened some biotechs and pharmaceutical firms considering supplying the government with new drugs to combat new biological threats. Foot-dragging in Congress alternated with the same in the administration on anthrax, while an intense lobbying war simmered between BioPort, the Michigan-based maker of BioThrax, and California-based VaxGen, maker of a vaccine currently in trials. Both companies were left in the lurch, without much assurance that government would buy their products with a minimum of red tape.

Now the same things appears to be happening on radiological threats. As The Washington Post reported yesterday, Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, maker of a radiological countermeasure, is complaining about foot-dragging on Neumune, which, if successful, would greatly lessen radiation sickness — the primary threat in the event of a “dirty bomb.” In July, Hollis-Eden CEO Richard Hollis criticized federal efforts for “a lack of leadership, a lack of implementation and sense of urgency.” Government sloth “has basically killed the capital markets and ability to raise money to develop these drugs.”

On the avian flu, Mr. Frist lamented the lack of “an effective vaccine and a robust antiviral stockpile” in a Tuesday letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, noting that each problem is “complicated by a weakened domestic manufacturing capacity.”

The common theme here is that government is not doing enough to create favorable conditions for companies building the compounds we need. Clearly, these are all public goods which the national interest requires we produce. It’s time for Congress to create a stronger Bioshield program that creates the market needed to bring them into existence.

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