On the defensive. Tommy Thompson says BioShield will spur companies to produce products for bioterror defense.

'BioShield' Takes Some Licks

Legislation proposed by the Bush Administration to spur production of antibioterrorism drugs and vaccines is running into opposition in Congress. Although project "BioShield" was approved by a Senate committee last week, members of the House are voicing strong reservations about its potentially astronomical cost and negative impact on competition among biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies designing new treatments.

President George W. Bush first announced BioShield in his State of the Union address in February. BioShield aims to speed up basic research and development efforts at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which was allotted a record $1.7 billion for bioterror research in the 2003 fiscal year. It also includes a provision to distribute drugs and vaccines to combat potential bioterrorism attacks without the usual clinical tests mandated by the Food and Drug Administration.

But it was BioShield's third provision that provoked widespread concern among members of two subcommittees, one from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the other from the Committee on Homeland Security, which convened jointly today for their first discussion of the legislation. Representatives were doubtful about the Administration's plan to enter into multiyear contracts with companies producing antibioterror products and provide guaranteed financial support of the products once they reach fruition. This is necessary "to create a market" for products that wouldn't have one otherwise, explained Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Without BioShield, "there aren't going to be many companies standing in line to do this."

But House members pointed out potential flaws in that strategy. For example, if the government contracted with a company producing, say, a vaccine for plague, and then a second company developed a superior vaccine, the first contract would stand nevertheless, and the government would be stuck paying for a potentially inferior product. "You may in fact stifle innovation" by discouraging competition, said Jim Turner (D-TX), as well as waste money. Bush tentatively proposed spending $6 billion over 10 years on BioShield, but Thompson said during today's hearing that the amount is in fact "indefinite," with no limit set in any fiscal year. Furthermore, because the current BioShield bill installs the project as law, a future administration would be bound to support it even if national security priorities shifted, noted Christopher Cox (R-CA).

The Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees will now determine how, if at all, to alter the existing BioShield bill before voting on it.

Related sites
Information from the White House on BioShield
Senate bill of BioShield