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New agency to lead hunt for bioterrorism defenses

BY AMY ELLIS NUTT, Star-Ledger Staff

It was a long wait and a breath less finish, but the U.S. House of Representatives finally pushed through a new bioterror bill nearly two years in the making.

Last Saturday, only hours be fore the 109th Congress adjourned for the year, the House passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. The most significant part of the bill was the establishment of a new federal agency, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

"We're very excited," said Brad Smith, a molecular biologist and senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "We think it's going to make an impor tant contribution to developing vaccines against bioterror pathogens. It's a victory for the government, for industry and for the American people."

BARDA has been allocated $1 billion by Congress, but more im portantly, it allows that money to be directed to biotech companies and research centers during the "Valley of Death," the long period between discovery and production.

In 2004, Project Bioshield was created to encourage the development of drugs and vaccines against some of the world's most lethal pathogens, many of them zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases such as Ebola, Marburg and Rift Valley fever. But Bioshield's $5.6 billion was targeted at drugs that had already made it through clinical trials, and those have been few and far between over the past two years.

"This legislation recognizes that the 'Valley of Death' remains a barrier to effective countermeasure product development," Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechno logy Industry Organization, said in a statement released Monday. "Through BARDA, contracts and grants for advanced research and development will be made to companies working on products to protect the American people."

When President Bush signs the legislation, which he has indicated he will do, companies participating in the grant program will no longer have to wait until their drugs are finished products to receive payment.

"This provides a whole new set of tools to foster partnership between government and industry," said Smith, "so that even if a product eventually fails, the company won't have to return the money."

Smith cites only one concern. Yesterday, Rep. David Obey (D- Wis.), new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced that the nine spending bills for the 2007 fiscal year that did not come up for passage in the cur rent session would be scrapped for a single spending bill covering 13 Cabinet departments.

"They essentially punted it into the 110th (Congress)," said Smith, "so it looks like ... they're going to hold everything at last year's levels for awhile."

However, the biologist and biosecurity expert is sanguine about the wait.

"It's not clear when the $1 billion will get appropriated," he said. "But BARDA exists now ... Hopefully what we can do is follow up and educate the people in Congress one more time."