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Companies On the Fence About Biodefense

The Scientist

Signed into law by President George W. Bush in July, Project BioShield allows the federal government to spend $5.6 billion over 10 years to purchase vaccines and drugs for smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxin, Ebola virus, plague, and other pathogens and infections. While biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies praised the initiative at the time, most are still sitting on the sidelines, waiting for additional legislation that would make biodefense a more attractive business prospect.

Part of the reason is fear of litigation and huge damage awards. "Large pharmaceutical companies have so far not been interested in BioShield because of fear of being sued" if they make a vaccine or drug that has adverse health effects, says Frank Rapoport, managing partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Devon, Pa., which represents drug companies seeking government contracts.

Unlike traditional defense spending by the Pentagon, BioShield neither funds basic research nor mitigates the risk companies take in developing products for which no commercial markets exist, should the government not buy their offerings. "That's a very challenging thing to ask industry to do," says a Senate staffer familiar with BioShield who requested anonymity. "Privately, the companies are telling us that BioShield's provisions are not remotely enough."

Before jumping into the biodefense fray, industry executives would like to see a range of incentives including guarantees of procurement, R&D tax credits, and protection from liability. "It's clear that follow-up legislation is needed, specifically for liability and procurement issues," says Kim Coghill, spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group in Washington, DC. "BioShield should not just authorize but guarantee that the government will purchase acceptable countermeasures."