Friday, April 07, 2006

White House Admits Lag in Bioterror Effort; House Hearing Decries Lack of a Strategic Plan
White House Admits Lag in Bioterror Effort
House Hearing Decries Lack of a Strategic Plan
By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that it still lacks a strategic plan for countering bioterror threats two years after Congress created a special program and appropriated billions of dollars for the purpose, and it pledged fresh efforts to speed up and streamline the troubled Project BioShield.

Under sharp questioning on Capitol Hill from members of both parties, the administration conceded many of the criticisms that have been leveled against Project BioShield by the drug and biotechnology industries in recent months. That $5.6 billion program is meant to build an elaborate national stockpile of drugs and other measures to counter biological and radioactive weapons, but corporate executives have complained of delays, bureaucratic inertia, and other problems in the way the program is being run.

"I think what's lacking in all this is a real sense of urgency," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat representing much of Silicon Valley. "I can't help but think we are not prepared if, God forbid, any of these catastrophes were to be visited upon the United States."

While declaring that BioShield is indeed a high priority of the government, Alex M. Azar II, a deputy secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, conceded that the lack of a strategic plan has left industry guessing about the government's priorities. Corporate executives warned that they do not know what kind of research to launch, and cannot raise private money to help finance the work, without a clearer set of marching orders.

"We recognize that more can and must be done to aggressively and efficiently implement Project BioShield," Azar told the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "We will make this process more transparent and work to educate the public and industry about our priorities and opportunities."

A draft plan will be made public later this year, with comments invited, and a final version should be ready soon after that, he said. Beyond the plan, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has promised to reorganize the responsible office, whose chief, Stewart Simonson, resigned recently. Simonson had drawn criticism on the Hill as lacking the scientific and emergency-management expertise necessary for the job.

But some experts declared at yesterday's hearing that shuffling people and paper within HHS won't be enough to solve the BioShield problems. Congress needs to rewrite laws to give the government more authority to subsidize expensive, risky research that small companies are having trouble financing on Wall Street, some experts said.

And Tara O'Toole, head of a University of Pittsburgh unit in Baltimore that studies biodefense issues, said that HHS simply lacks the personnel to manage the $5.6 billion program efficiently, estimating that another 100 employees are needed. About 40 people are devoted to the task now, an HHS spokesman said.

"They have lots of good people working their hearts out over there trying to administer BioShield, but they fall far short of what is needed," O'Toole declared.

She and other speakers noted that the $5.6 billion, though it sounds like a lot, is spread out over 10 years and is not much in the context of the vast expenditures on pharmaceuticals in this country. O'Toole said sharp increases will be necessary if the government is serious about building national defenses against biological, chemical and radiological weapons.

Azar, of HHS, said the government has so far committed nearly $1.1 billion in BioShield contracts, with more in the works. The initial contracts are focused on the most critical threats, including smallpox and anthrax, but experts say there has been little evident progress on a wide array of threats in the 4 1/2 years since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Most of the money committed so far is going toward a single program to buy 75 million doses of anthrax vaccine from VaxGen Inc. of Brisbane, Calif., a plan that has run into delays and scientific hurdles. VaxGen has conceded it is at least a year behind schedule in making the vaccine and will default on its contracts in November unless the government grants a time extension.