WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers who experienced the dangers of anthrax firsthand sent President Bush legislation yesterday to give private companies $5.6 billion in incentives to develop antidotes to biological and chemical weapons.
"This is the largest first-responder program ever enacted in American history," said the Homeland Security Committee chairman, Christopher Cox, Republican of California, before the House voted, 414 to 2, to pass the Project Bioshield Act.
Over the next 10 years, the act would give the pharmaceutical industry the financial guarantees it says it needs to research and produce vaccines and antidotes for bioterror agents.
"What's the incentive today to develop a vaccine for Ebola or for the plague when there is no real market for such a vaccine in this country?" asked Representative Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana, a chief sponsor of the legislation.
With the House vote, Congress completed work on legislation Bush requested in a State of the Union speech 18 months ago. Agreement between the House and Senate was delayed by a dispute over how to guarantee a steady stream of funding to drug makers without taking away Congress's authority to make annual decisions on spending levels.
Protection from bioterror is of personal interest to many lawmakers, who have seen their offices closed and their lives disrupted twice by biological threats since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The legislation guarantees that any company that develops countermeasures to treat diseases and conditions caused by bioterrorism would have a buyer in the federal government. Also included would be antidotes for chemical, radiological, and nuclear agents.
Among the first candidates for purchase are next-generation anthrax vaccines. The government eventually hopes to stockpile enough doses to inoculate 25 million people.