In late September, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told members of Congress in a classified closed-door meeting that bird flu could conceivably kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Within 24 hours, a band of Senate Democrats jumped on the issue, cobbling together a $3.9 billion legislative proposal to buy and stockpile huge new quantities of vaccines and antiviral medications. Only a few hours later, their proposal passed the Senate on a voice vote, with almost no debate or discussion.
The hasty vote is just one sign that legislators in Washington are scrambling. The price tag of an avian-flu plan has now jumped as high as $8 billion under the latest Senate proposal, with President Bush also proposing a multibillion-dollar spending plan.
Separately from the avian-flu proposals, a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, includes broad liability protections for drug companies that produce "countermeasures" to public-health threats. These companies would also get tax rebates and exclusive market access for their drugs. The bill would create a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, with a $1 billion-a-year budget, that would fund companies with promising vaccines and other biodefense drugs.
The Gates Foundation, among others, has also studied the idea of promising companies a huge payment if they invent, say, a malaria vaccine that can be used in poor countries. The attraction of the idea is that it limits the potentially stifling involvement of government or charities in the nitty-gritty of drug discovery.
[Excerpted from an article by Bernard Wysocki Jr., The Wall Street Journal]