White House outlines bioterrorism plan

/ Source: The Associated Press

To deal with potential bioterrorism, the government will focus on buying new medicines for anthrax, smallpox and acute radiation syndrome, according to a Bush administration plan.

The plan's release came on the same day that Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about the government's efforts in preparing how to confront a weapon of mass destruction.

The Health and Human Services Department terminated the largest contract, $877 million for an anthrax vaccine, through a procurement program known as Project BioShield.

"BioShield is a new program. That said, new doesn't necessarily equate with a license to make mistakes," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "Yet, mistakes have been made with regard to the development and implementation of the program," said Thompson, D-Miss.

In 2004, Congress set aside about $5.5 billion for Project Bioshield. The plan that the administration released Wednesday described priorities for acquiring medicine both in the short term - this year and next - and longer term, 2009-2013.

The plan said it will cost more than $100 million to acquire the anthrax and smallpox vaccines that the government seeks. The cost of medicine for acute radiation poisoning is anticipated to exceed $100 million.

The plan listed as a near-term priority the development of antibiotics for threats such as the plague or tularemia. Both diseases can be deadly are caused by the bacteria found in rodents in many parts of the world.

The plan will focus on buying medicines to be used after people are exposed to biological agents. The government would pursue preventive measures only for threats of "catastrophic consequence."

The administration emphasized that money for basic research and product development has increased by more than tenfold since 2001. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt cited progress since the Sept. 11 attacks in securing medicine for a range of threats.

But some people say more progress should have been made. In written testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, one witness said Leavitt's department pushed drug companies away from investing in medicines that could be used against weapons of mass destruction.

Richard Hollis, chief executive officer of Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, said the department did not put the program in place according to the law and changed the criteria required by companies to get a contract.

"Realize that these same officials and their actions are the precise reason why companies and investors are running away from, not toward this BioShield program," Hollis said.