WASHINGTON – The discovery of sarin (search) gas in Iraq and the use of anthrax (search) and ricin (search) against Congress spurred the Senate Wednesday to approve $5.6 billion to help prepare for possible germ or chemical attacks on American soil.
The Senate, on a 99-0 vote, approved "Project BioShield" (search) legislation to pay for research, production and stockpiling of vaccines and antidotes for bioterror agents. The House already has approved the legislation, and lawmakers on both sides say they hope to soon have it to President Bush for his signature.
Lawmakers are moving quickly on the legislation because America is not prepared for a major bioterror attack, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. The sarin gas discovered in a roadside bomb Monday in Iraq, and the ricin and anthrax attacks on the Capitol complex "demonstrated that bioterror (search) is here," said Frist, whose office was mailed a letter containing ricin last fall. "It's on our own soil, it's hit this nation, hit this Capitol, hit the entire East Coast, and indeed it was deadly."
The legislation, covering the next 10 years, would provide incentives to the pharmaceutical industry to research and develop bioterrorism countermeasures, accelerate the approval process for antidotes and, in an emergency, allow the government to distribute certain treatments before the Food and Drug Administration (search) approved them.
"The bill before the Senate guarantees that any company which develops a successful new product for these threats will find a willing buyer in the federal government," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "With that guarantee, companies will make the investments needed to prepare for any attack."
Added Tommy Thompson, head of the Health and Human Services Department: "We're going to be able to push the industry in order to do research in particular areas and then we're going to be able to provide them with a market after they find the kind of remedies and solutions that we need."
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H, said the effort will be expensive. But, he said, "we had to set up a structure where we make it viable for our private-sector pharmaceutical industries and biotechnology industries to invest the extraordinary amount of money it takes to invest in the production of this type of response capability," he said.
In cases where the private sector does not respond, the bill allows the government to operate emergency programs to research and produce vaccines.
Bush has been calling for the legislation since his 2003 State of the Union address.
"Project BioShield is critical for strengthening the nation's ability to protect Americans against biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological terrorist threats," the White House said in a statement Wednesday.
Among the agents to be included in Project BioShield are smallpox, anthrax, botulism toxin, plague and Ebola.
The House overwhelmingly passed a version of the bill last year, and now the two sides will have to come to a compromise before it heads to the White House for Bush's signature.
But Gregg said, "I expect the House to take our bill and move it on to the president." House Homeland Security chairman Chris Cox, R-Calif., also said he expected the legislation to go to the president without a formal House-Senate conference.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, D-Mass., did not vote.