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Senator Concerned About Renewal of Biodefense Legislation

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Jun. 30) -U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), shown last year, on Wednesday suggested Congress might not endorse a bill aimed at bolstering the nation's preparedness against an intentional or natural disease outbreak (Mark Wilson/Getty Images). (Jun. 30) -U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), shown last year, on Wednesday suggested Congress might not endorse a bill aimed at bolstering the nation's preparedness against an intentional or natural disease outbreak (Mark Wilson/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- A sponsor of Senate legislation designed to boost U.S. public health emergency response capabilities in the event of bioterrorism or a natural disease outbreak expressed concern on Wednesday that the measure might not receive congressional approval (see GSN, June 29).

"This is a difficult year to forecast the likelihood of legislation passing, given that we're now six months into the calendar year and we have absolutely accomplished zero in the United States Congress," said Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who along with Senator Robert Casey (D-Pa.) recently crafted a measure to renew the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

The 2006 law, which is set to expire at the end of September, bolstered Project Bioshield, a federal program set up to purchase medicines meant to protect U.S. citizens from the effects of a WMD attack.

The measure -- sometimes dubbed "PAPAH" -- also established the Health and Human Services Department's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which provides financial and managerial support for companies to develop the treatments.

"I guess the odds are not in our favor but I'm also convinced that there's a will, therefore there will be a way to get PAPAH reauthorization done," Burr said during a panel discussion at a two-day 2011 Biosecurity Conference.

"I'm not convinced it will be early -- early in the second half of this year -- but I also believe that the makeup of the legislation will merit participation of Republicans and Democrats," added the North Carolina lawmaker, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Burr did not speculate on what would happen to the biodefense efforts if lawmakers did not reauthorize the existing statute before the new fiscal year begins on October 1.

Also on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) filed companion legislation in that chamber that would renew the 2006 law for an additional five years. The bill would additionally strengthen the role of the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, which has oversight of the BARDA and Bioshield programs.

The move came less than a week after House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) and panel member Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) unveiled the latest version of a bill designed to overhaul security at the country's biological research facilities and enhance federal efforts against the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (see GSN, June 24).

That bill would create a new special assistant to the president for biodefense, who would be responsible for crafting a national strategy against biological threats. If both measures were passed by Congress, the King-Pascrell legislation could complement the biodefense reauthorization legislation, said former Senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the WMD Center in Washington.

The 2006 measure deemed the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response as the government lead for such efforts, according to Talent, who co-chaired the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

That panel in 2008 warned of the potential for a WMD attack somewhere around the globe by 2013 and last year gave the Obama administration an "F" in a final "report card" for failure to develop a comprehensive strategy against a disease-based attack (see GSN, Jan. 26, 2010).

If lawmakers approved both bills, the new special assistant -- who would be a member of the National Security Council -- "would be one of the chief advocates for the agenda of the assistant secretary for preparedness," Talent told the audience.

Despite the potentially uncertain approval process for the renewal bill, Burr said he remains optimistic.

"Unlike any other piece of legislation in the United States Congress this year, I think PAPAH may be one of the top pieces of legislation that could make it through the gauntlet," he told Global Security Newswire after the event.

"That doesn't suggest it's going to be easy," he added.

Burr said he was "pleased" with the bipartisan effort made thus far on the pending bill and hoped it would continue through its legislative construction.

The measure's chances at passage could also be helped by the White House making the case to lawmakers that it is an "urgent issue," the GOP lawmaker said.

"Regardless of administration, where has our breakdown been in our ability to get the right structure or the right timeline in place for medical countermeasures? In a lot of cases, it's a lack of leadership at the executive branch," Burr told GSN.

NTI Analysis