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Bioagents Bill Readied for House

By Chris Strohm


(Apr. 21) -Emergency responders treat a mock victim during a 2006 bioterrorism drill in California. Two U.S. House members said they would soon introduce legislation aimed at tightening controls on dangerous biological materials (Robyn Beck/Getty Images). (Apr. 21) -Emergency responders treat a mock victim during a 2006 bioterrorism drill in California. Two U.S. House members said they would soon introduce legislation aimed at tightening controls on dangerous biological materials (Robyn Beck/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Key lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee said Tuesday they are drafting a bipartisan bill that would regulate dangerous biological agents -- and, they hope, will avoid problems confronting similar legislation in the Senate (see GSN, Nov. 5, 2009).

Homeland Security ranking member Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Representative Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said they hope to introduce a comprehensive bill next week aimed at preventing a terrorist attack involving the world's deadliest biological agents and toxins.

Committee members plan to discuss the contours of the bill today during a hearing with former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who co-chaired the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism (see GSN, Jan. 26).

In a conference call Tuesday, King and Pascrell said their bill will be similar in many ways to legislation introduced last year by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine).

But the Lieberman-Collins bill came under fire from Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) for putting the Homeland Security Department in charge of regulating security at labs that work with Tier 1 biological agents. They said this essentially cut out HHS or other federal agencies that now have oversight responsibilities.

Pascrell said he is trying to avoid that problem in the House bill. "We listened to the concerns of the scientific community and took them to heart," he said.

The House bill gives DHS responsibility for ensuring that labs that possess Tier 1 agents increase security, an aide familiar with the bill said. But HHS and the Agriculture Department remain in charge of the Select Agents program, as stipulated in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.

The House bill also would establish a process under which DHS, HHS, USDA, the Defense Department, the Energy Department and other relevant federal agencies would work with private research institutions and public health labs to negotiate higher standards that Tier 1 labs must achieve and maintain, the aide added.

While the Lieberman-Collins bill splits the Select Agents list into three categories, the Pascrell-King bill would only have two tiers because the labs and scientists felt that dealing with a third tier would be too burdensome, the aide said.

"The intent of our bipartisan legislation is to provide a truly comprehensive approach to securing the nation against weapons of mass destruction by looking at all angles -- prevention and deterrence, preparedness, detection, attribution, response and recovery," Pascrell said.

"The WMD Commission has laid out our deficiencies quite starkly and now more than eight years after [the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks] is the time to act decisively to counter this great threat to the American people," he added.

The commission concluded at the end of 2008 that an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction was likely in the world by 2013, and the attack most likely would involve a biological weapon.

But Pascrell acknowledged he does not yet have an agreement from House Democratic leaders that the bill would be brought to the House floor anytime soon.

King said even if the bill is not passed in the near future it still would put the Obama administration on notice that it needs to act to better secure labs.

"It sends the executive a clear signal. It sends the bureaucracy a clear signal," King said. "Quite frankly, we've been lucky up until now but our luck might run out. I don't want to be attacked before we wake up on this."

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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