Federal review of bioterrorism strategy due out Thursday

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is scheduled to release a new report Thursday proposing strategies to combat bioterrorism and other public health threats. 

The Obama administration has raised questioned with an existing program called BioShield that is aimed at spurring the private sector to develop new drugs and vaccines that protect against biological, chemical and radiological weapons. The president in his 2010 State of the Union address announced a new initiative to respond faster and more effectively to bioterrorism, and HHS's review of the current medical countermeasures system, ordered in December, is expected to provide insights into what the administration has in mind.

The report comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill have tried repeatedly to cut funding for the BioShield program to pay for other domestic priorities. The House cut $2 billion from the program to pay for its war supplemental legislation, but that was replaced in the Senate version with another pay-for.

Senators had proposed cutting the program to pay for Pell Grant legislation and a settlement with minority farmers, an industry source said, but other pay-fors were eventually found.

A bipartisan group of 16 senators led by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) wrote to the top Democrat and Republican in the Senate last month urging them not to cut the program.

A $2 billion cut "would devastate the BioShield program," their letter says, "and, ultimately, damage our national security."

And former Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Miss.), who served as chairman and co-chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, wrote to President Obama last month urging him not to cut the program. The panel gave the administration an "F" in its Jan. 26 report card on the U.S. government's "capabilities to rapidly respond to biological attacks."

"If the BioShield program is defunded now, before your new strategy is even given a chance to work, we will have to find a grade lower than 'F' for our next report card." 

The HHS report is expected to strengthen the hand of those opposed to raiding the fund, the industry source said, but the industry still has concerns with long-term funding for the program.