Congress Takes Up Bioterror Protections

While Congress vacates the Capitol to test for bioterror agents, one Senate leader is proposing a way to better prepare the nation against bioterrorist attacks. 

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate's health panel, wants to provide $5 billion to $10 billion to pay for increased vaccine production, expedited drug approval and tighter surveillance of dangerous materials in Russia and other countries.

The plan could also make it easier for the government and drug industry to cooperate in speeding up research and production of new vaccines and drugs to fight off bioagents, said Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley.

Manley added that the legislation may order the creation of a biowarfare security program with Russia, which has the world's largest supply of dangerous pathogens. American officials reviewing Russian laboratories last week as part of a defense cooperation agreement found anthrax in their search.

Kennedy's plan would be similar to one used to ensure that Russia's nuclear arsenal doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

It would also increase security at U.S. facilities where biological agents are stored, provide funds for local emergency response efforts and speed up Food and Drug Administration procedures for studying and approving vaccines and other treatments.

Kennedy and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., already have developed a $1.4 billion measure to upgrade state and local government computers, prepare communities for disasters, improve health laboratories and increase staff and training in those communities.

Frist spokeswoman Margaret Camp said Frist would like to find a bipartisan approach to respond to bioterrorism before agreeing to more spending.

The Bush White House already has proposed $1.5 billion to go to increased stockpiles of antibiotics and other medical supplies and to pay for 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Thursday that bioterrorism provisions could be added to an anti-terror bill that is currently being negotiated in Congress.

Kennedy's bill coincides with the shutdown of the House side of the Capitol and three Senate office buildings following the discovery of anthrax in the Senate.  At least 28 staff and police from the fifth and sixth floors of the Hart Office Building tested positive for exposure to anthrax that was delivered in a letter to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Health officials are inspecting and decontaminating the shuttered buildings and Congress is set to reconvene Tuesday.

The Senate could take up Kennedy's measure as early as next week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.