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Senators slam plan to slash anti-bioterrorism funds

A letter signed by 17 says cuts to the BioShield drug and vaccine program could leave Americans more vulnerable to attacks.

July 22, 2010|Ken Dilanian, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Seventeen senators have signed a letter denouncing an effort to cut billions in funds for drugs and vaccines intended to thwart bioterrorism.

At issue is a House budget bill that would cut up to $2 billion from the Project BioShield special reserve fund to buy drugs and vaccines in the event of a biological attack. The funds were set aside as a guarantee to private companies that if they produced the medicines, government money would be available to buy them.

The White House has not objected to the cut and has criticized the fund.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, issued a statement Thursday protesting the reduction, along with two Republicans, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who wrote the law that created the fund in 2004. The statement included a letter signed by seven more Democrats and six more Republicans.

"The catastrophic events of September 11th and the anthrax attacks that followed demonstrated that our government was ill prepared to deal with the kinds of terrorist attacks we may well face in the future," Lieberman said. "We still have no modern vaccine for anthrax and no countermeasures for dozens of other potential bioterror pathogens. The BioShield Program was meant to address these serious security shortcomings."

Siphoning the funds to other programs, as the House bill would do, "would be frightfully shortsighted and would jeopardize the security of the American people against a very real and potent threat," he said.

Bioterrorism experts have called the cut an example of how the Obama White House is failing to thoroughly address the threat of a biological attack, which they say could kill 400,000 Americans and do $2 trillion in economic damage.

The probability of such an event is low, the experts acknowledge, but they say the failure to plan for it reflects the same mindset that preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction gave the federal government F grade in January for its bioterrorism preparation. There have been few improvements since, said the cochairman, former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

If terrorists attacked a city with anthrax or some other biological agent today, "I think there would be tens if not hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily killed," Graham said in a recent interview. "We know what to do to reduce the impact of a biological attack, but thus far we have been unwilling to implement those steps."

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the government has been dissatisfied with Project BioShield and is redesigning a system creating incentives for private drug companies to produce drugs and vaccines faster.

"BioShield has demonstrated limited success in providing incentives for private-sector developers and has not provided a robust pipeline of medical countermeasures," Shapiro said in an e-mail.

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