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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Our Friend the Microbe 

Dept. of Ideas We Just Simply Loooooove, via Zemblan patriot P.S.:
By creating a federal agency shielded from public scrutiny, some lawmakers think they can speed the development and testing of new drugs and vaccines needed to respond to a bioterrorist attack or super-flu pandemic.

The proposed Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, or BARDA, would be exempt from long-standing open records and meetings laws that apply to most government departments, according to legislation approved Oct. 18 by the Senate health committee.

Those exemptions would streamline the development process, safeguard national security and protect the proprietary interests of drug companies, say Republican backers of the bill. The legislation also proposes giving manufacturers immunity from liability in exchange for their participation in the public-private effort . . . .

But it is the secrecy and immunity provisions of the legislation that have alarmed patient rights and open government advocates. The agency would be exempt from the Freedom of Information and Federal Advisory Committee acts, both considered crucial for monitoring government accountability.

"There is no other agency that I am aware of where the agency is totally exempt either from FOIA or FACA," said Pete Weitzel, coordinator of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government . . . .

The National Vaccine Information Center, an advocacy group, called the legislation "a drug company stockholder's dream and a consumer's worst nightmare."

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said the agency as proposed would represent a setback to decades of progress in opening up to the public the process of testing the safety and efficacy of drugs.

"These provisions are extremely dangerous," Wolfe said. "The fact that they are being proposed, really exploiting people's fears about pandemics and epidemics, is outrageous and goes backward on the progress on the use of the Freedom of Information Act and Federal Advisory Committee Act to increase public scrutiny and increase the correctness of decisions that are made."
We won't even get into the issue of blanket immunity for pharmaceutical companies that dump potentially lethal drugs on the market. We will merely note that the first step in developing vaccines to deal with a "bioterrorist attack" is to develop and manufacture the bioweapons that the vaccines are designed to thwart, including the ones that don't exist yet. The defensive-use provision is of course the glaring loophole in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which otherwise forbids member nations to "to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict."

But why would the Bush administration want to remove its purely defensive research into bioweaponry from public scrutiny and/or government oversight? Let's ask our friends at PNAC who had this to say in the notorious 2000 position paper entitled "Rebuilding America's Defenses":
New methods of attack -- electronic, 'non-lethal', biological -- will be more widely available ... combat likely will take place in new dimensions, in space, cyberspace, and perhaps the world of microbes ... advanced forms of biological warfare that can 'target' specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool.

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