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Drugmakers to receive tax dollars to boost fight against bioterrorism


WASHINGTON — Desperate for vaccines and medicines to ward off deadly threats such as anthrax, Ebola, smallpox and bird flu, Congress wants to give drug companies a new incentive: cash up front.

President Bush signed legislation yesterday that creates a bureaucracy that would give tax dollars to private companies and universities to develop vaccines and treatments.

Scientists would contract with the federal government to take on manmade terrorist threats and naturally occurring pandemics, as well as chemical and radiological threats.

The public-private partnership — akin to the way the Defense Department buys fighter jets — could be a boon for the growing number of biotechnology companies.

But some of the new program’s work also would be shielded from public scrutiny, which critics say could stymie necessary oversight and lend the false impression internationally that the United States is developing biological weapons.

The bill was shepherded through Congress by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who spent two years fending off critics and trying to shape a new program palatable to biotechnology companies and to Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services.

The law creates the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Its director, reporting to Leavitt, would control the money to be distributed for advanced research on a host of vaccines and countermeasures.

The money, $1.07 billion over two years, would be used to help biotechnology companies make the leap from initial research to ready-to-buy procurement.

When the legislation was introduced in 2005, some scientists and advocacy groups were outraged that it would exempt the entire authority from the Freedom of Information Act. No other government agency has such a broad veil of secrecy.

The act signed into law yesterday contains a provision prohibiting disclosure of "technical data or scientific information" that would reveal vulnerabilities of the nation’s defenses that aren’t publicly known. Defining that trigger is up to the secretary of health and human services.

Lynn C. Klotz, a former Harvard University scientist and industry consultant, calls the new, more narrow language better, but still troublesome.

"I’m worried that too much of what they do would still remain secret. I don’t think there’s going to be much oversight," said Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

He added that other countries could assume that the United States is doing nefarious work. "It’s the extreme secrecy which makes everybody suspicious of us," Klotz said.

Burr said it would be irresponsible to reveal any vulnerabilities to the nation’s defenses. "Where it might provide our enemy some advantage, I think we have a right and commitment to withhold that information from the public," he said.