Congress Alters Approach to Bioterrorist Threat

The House and Senate pass legislation to revamp the Bush administration's $5.6 billion effort to counter bioterrorism threats, reorganizing management of the program and providing struggling companies with periodic cash infusions to help fund their research and testing. More than a year in the making, the legislation was considered by many to be an effort to salvage the two-year-old Project BioShield, which has been marked by delays and problems.

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A new report says the country isn't ready, still, for the next major public health catastrophe, whether it be bioterror or bird flu. The report comes after the latest attempt by Congress to revamp the government's public health and bioterror preparedness efforts.

NPR's Julie Rovner has the story.

JULIE ROVNER: Most public health efforts take place at the state level, and states are making some progress in getting ready for the next pandemic, major hurricane or bioterror attack, says the annual report by the non-profit, non-partisan Trust For America's Health. Just not enough, says Jeff Levey, the group's executive director. For example -

Mr. JEFF LEVEY (Trust for America's Health): Twenty-five states would run out of hospital beds within the first two weeks of a moderate outbreak of the pandemic flu. If a severe pandemic hit, 47 states would run out of beds within two weeks.

ROVNER: Which would be a big problem. Most experts predict the first wave of a flu pandemic would likely last eight to 12 weeks. So Congress, just before adjourning early Saturday morning, passed a bi-partisan bill that attempts to address the states' lack of readiness. States will have to meet specific standards to detect, respond to and manage public health threats.

The bill also addresses a federal problem, says North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, the lack of new products to use in public health emergencies.

Senator RICHARD BURR (Republican, North Carolina): The challenge was to create a blueprint for this country to create and develop countermeasures, vaccines and antivirals for threats that exist to the American people.

ROVNER: Lawmakers thought they'd already created that blueprint. Two and a half years ago, at President Bush's urging, Congress passed Project Bioshield. It promised billions of dollars in financial incentives for private firms to do the research. But most companies weren't interested, so now Congress wants to bring the work in house. It's creating a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. It's based on a similar agency in the Department of Defense that helped spur development of super computers and nanotechnology, to name a few.

Even more important in Jeff Levey's opinion, the bill makes it clear that in a pandemic, bioterror attack or even a major natural disaster, health decisions will be made by a single federal official.

Mr. LEVEY: This clarifies that in a public health emergency, it's the Department of Health and Human Services that will be calling the shots and that there is no question that they are in charge, rather than some shared authority or command structure with the Department of Homeland Security. We thought it was very important for Congress to clarify as a matter of policy that decisions should be driven from the health perspective.

ROVNER: For the past four years, it's been unclear who was in charge, the secretary of HHS or Homeland Security. But what the new report says is lacking most is money, and that's not easily solved because Democrats have promised to make shrinking the budget deficit their top priority next year.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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