IT IS EXCEEDINGLY rare these days to find something that the House and the Senate, the Republicans and the Democrats, can all agree on. But after the Senate's final passage of the Project Bioshield bill last week -- by a vote of 99 to 0 -- it seems that there really is near-unanimous, bipartisan support for speeding up development and stockpiling of the vaccines, antidotes and diagnostic devices that could be used to deter or help cope with a biological terrorist attack in the United States. The bill, a version of which was passed by a comparable margin in the House, provides $5.6 billion in funding over the next decade for purchasing vaccines and other medicines. It also streamlines research procedures and in a national emergency allows the government to distribute treatments that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Fine. But now that Congress has demonstrated its enthusiasm for biodefense, it's time to get a lot more ambitious. Administration officials such as Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, and Tommy Thompson, the health and human services secretary, consistently say that they take the bioterror threat seriously. Yet of the 57 countermeasures that the Defense Science Board listed in 2000 as necessary to protect the country against known bioterror agents, only two are available. There is still no defense against the threats that could come from laboratories in the future, such as hybrid diseases, new viruses and bacteria that resist antibiotics.
Congress needs to do more to ensure that companies devote resources to biodefense. Critics of the new bill note that its liability protections for companies whose products are used without FDA approval are weak, as are its guarantees of compensation for people who suffer unexpected side effects while using an untested vaccine or antibody.
The drug and biotech industries worry that purchase price issues remain fuzzy and intellectual property protections are not ironclad. Too many remember the pressure put on Bayer, the producer of the anthrax drug Cipro, to cut prices dramatically following the 2001 anthrax attacks, as well as congressional threats to suspend Bayer's patent if the company refused. It's easy to imagine how government concerns about patent law could evaporate during a bioterror epidemic. It's also easy to imagine how that scenario might make companies shy away from the bioterror "market" in the first place.
The government does not have to ensure that companies make unusually high profits: Defense contractors work on a lower rate of return, and it may be time that biotech companies learned to do so as well. But the government's financial and regulatory commitment, not only to medicines for the national stockpile but to long-term research, must be clearer and larger. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Orrin K. Hatch (R-Utah) have already begun work on a bill ("Bioshield II") that will address some of these issues. Congress will have to think harder about what trade-offs will be needed if national biodefense spending is to match the scale of the threat.