WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- House Homeland Security Committee members on Thursday sharply questioned the cost, usefulness and adequacy of a $5.6 billion, 10-year Bush administration plan designed to pay drug companies incentives to make vaccines and treatments for deadly terrorist bio-weapons like anthrax.
The program, called "Bioshield," is designed to try to assure drug companies they will be assured a federal market for bioterror defense products if they put their "best and brightest" to work developing them, testified Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci was one of the architects of the plan, which President Bush introduced in his January State of the Union address.
Fauci and three other medical experts on biological terrorist agents testified at the hearing. The pharmaceutical industry has said it cannot afford to spend millions researching a product that may never be needed and, if it is, will be distributed by the government agencies.
But Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who heads an appropriations committee on Homeland Security, called the $5.6 billion cost estimate "chicken feed to this industry (pharmaceuticals)" and questioned why it should paid out all at once. The bill calls for the $5.6 billion to be appropriated for 2003 through 2013. Rogers recommended a system like the one used for highway programs and other federal expenditures, whereby Congress appropriates the necessary amount each year. He said multi-year commitments undermine Congress' constitutional power to appropriate.
Fauci said that the multi-year plan to was assure the pharmaceutical industry that the money really was there for the programs.
Reps. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., questioned the panel on the choice of bioterrorist agents that research would initially concentrate on. Several panel members said the agents were chosen because they were the most dangerous, and are known to have been developed in Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Union. The list includes anthrax, smallpox virus and hemorrhagic agents like Ebola.
"What if they just do the one thing we don't have?" Shays asked. Dr. Garry Adams, a veterinarian and associate dean for research at Texas A&M, said the object is to close out avenues for the terrorist, making him go for more and more exotic weapons that are less effective and perhaps harder to handle. He and others said anthrax and smallpox remain among the most dangerous substances because they can be spread through the air.
Several of the panelist pointed out the United States is, as Dr. C.J. Peters stressed, "facing an ever-increasing threat from emerging infections as well." Severe acute respiratory syndrome and West Nile virus, he said, represent two dangerous epidemics, ones the Bush plan could help deal with.
All the witnesses warned that even familiar agents like anthrax now can be genetically engineered so antibiotics and other treatments are no longer effective, and said researchers must continually strive to stay ahead of these developments.
Bush has pushed to move this bill along. This panel and an earlier one stressed that the United States is unguarded on this front. The only agent the United States has an effective vaccine for is anthrax, and Bush wanted a rush program to develop more. The president met with Hill Republicans earlier in the spring and asked the bill be expedited. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce completed its hearings on the bill and filed its version Thursday in the House.
Along with the financing issues, the bill would allow vaccines to be distributed in an emergency without full Food and Drug Administration approval. A statement by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., noted that "in a time of national emergency it may be necessary to give investigational drugs on a large scale basis to millions of Americans."
The pharmaceutical industry wanted the government to provide companies with liability protections in this event, but Tauzin said such provisions are not in this version of the bill. The Joint Committee on Homeland Security also will present its version of the bill.