Bipartisan WMD Panel Criticizes Obama Plan to Fund Swine Flu Vaccine

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

President Obama's contingency plan to help finance production of a swine flu vaccine with funds set aside to develop defenses against biological attacks would weaken the nation's preparedness for terrorism, the leaders of a bipartisan commission on weapons of mass destruction said yesterday.

The White House asked Congress on Tuesday for authority to spend up to $9 billion more for an H1N1 flu vaccine and other preparations against the novel flu strain that first appeared in April.

Of the total, the administration asked Congress to provide $2 billion in "contingent" funding. Another $3 billion could come from the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund, created in 2004 to field countermeasures against nuclear, biological or chemical threats; $3.1 billion from stimulus funds appropriated to spur economic recovery; and $800 million from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Using BioShield funds for flu preparedness will severely diminish the nation's efforts to prepare for WMD events and will leave the nation less, not more, prepared," the commission's chairman, former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and vice chairman, former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.), wrote to Obama in a letter sent yesterday and in another dated Wednesday to his budget director, Peter Orszag.

Raiding BioShield would weaken the ability of private firms to raise credit and sustain long-term research and development on drugs to respond to bioterror threats, for which there is no private market, industry officials said. The former lawmakers said the H1N1 influenza virus poses a public health threat that merits its own funding.

They also encouraged Obama to name Vice President Biden to take charge of the administration's efforts to counter weapons proliferation and WMD terrorism.

"You already know what he offers: long experience working on WMD, an understanding of how to move the levers of power to meet urgent goals, and most important, the unique credibility and stature of his office," Graham and Talent wrote.

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, created by Congress in 2007, warned in December that an attack involving such weapons was more likely than not to occur somewhere in the world by the end of 2013, probably involving a biological weapon.

The commission's opposition followed other criticism of the administration's flu vaccine funding plans. Congressional Republicans attacked the White House's request for authority to use up to 1 percent of $311 billion in discretionary stimulus funds, or $3.1 billion, saying Democrats were using the economic recovery money as a "slush fund."

"It's not necessarily the policy issue that we're concerned about," said Jennifer Hing, minority spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee. "It's the concern that this could potentially open the door for stimulus monies to be used for other Democratic priorities that turn up, instead of having extra money lying around being used to pay down the deficit."

White House officials said they expect that the request for $2 billion marked "Unanticipated Needs for Influenza" will be adequate for flu preparations, when combined with another $1.5 billion to $2.05 billion that Congress is already set to approve. HHS officials have already committed to spending $1.4 billion and said last month that plans were moving forward to develop as many as two doses of H1N1 flu vaccine for each American, or about 600 million doses, although a formal decision has not been made.

But the president asked for the additional BioShield, stimulus and HHS discretionary funds as a matter of prudence in case the virus mutates into a much more lethal form and a swift and massive response is needed in coming months, Obama aides said.

"Except in extraordinary circumstances, BioShield funds will not be accessed," said Kenneth S. Baer, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

The BioShield fund has $3 billion left of $5.6 billion it was given to spend over 10 years to research and develop medicines to care for Americans after a WMD terrorist attack, an OMB official said.

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