Sunday, December 10, 2006

Congress approves bioterrorism preparedness bill

Congress approves bioterrorism preparedness bill
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress on Saturday passed a bill to improve U.S. preparedness for bioterrorism or other health crises, in part by accelerating development of new vaccines and drugs.

The bill, sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy and North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, was one of a number of bills passed by Congress before adjourning Saturday morning and sent to President George W. Bush.

"With this bill, we take many important steps to increase our preparedness and response capabilities for public health emergencies by increasing our medical surge capacity, strengthening our public health infrastructure, and clarifying the responsibilities of federal officials," Kennedy said.

Many experts have warned that the United States is poorly prepared to respond to a terrorism attack involving germ warfare agents, like anthrax or small pox, or to potential pandemics like bird flu. The measure would provide $1 billion over three years to develop vaccines and drugs to counter such threats.

It also would build on Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion program created in 2004 that was spurred by the September 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent anthrax scares, and would aim to develop more and better drugs and vaccines in a national stockpile.

The Department of Health and Human Services would be designated as the lead federal agency to respond to public health emergencies under the legislation, which also would create a central authority within the department to handle the mission.

One intent of the measure is to unify the command and control for all of the public health and medical preparedness and response programs under an assistant HHS secretary, in an effort to avoid the chaotic response federal officials gave to Hurricane Katrina last year after it battered New Orleans.

The measure also would reauthorize a law that established grants to state and local public health authorities to improve their readiness.

The bill would establish within the Health and Human Services Department the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to oversee the initiative and establish a National Biodefense Science Board to advise the government on emerging threats as well as promising breakthroughs in life sciences.

Industry was disappointed with Project BioShield in part because because it did not help pay the cost of research and development of drugs and vaccines that have little commercial appeal.

With that in mind, this legislation would permit companies to get up to half the amount of their procurement contract in increments of 5 percent through the drug development process if they meet certain goals.