Citing what they call the continuing threat of biological terrorism against the United States, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed new legislation aimed at speeding the process of finding medical cures and vaccines for diseases.
Recalling the mail-borne anthrax attacks after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist strikes on the United States, Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill they describe as crucial to defending against potential bioterrorism.
Jim Turner, a Texas Democrat and ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, is the key sponsor. "The threat of bio-terrorism is perhaps the most dangerous threat that our nation faces today. Over and over again we are told that al-Qaida intends to use a bio-terror agent against our country. It's clearly just a matter of time before that effort is made," he said.
The legislation is called RAPID, for Rapid Pathogen Identification to the Delivery of Cures Act. Its main purpose is to reduce the time required to develop drugs and vaccines in response to potential terrorist use of new biological agents.
Congressman Turner notes that currently, it can take as long as 14 years on average to develop new drugs or vaccines, far too long he says, in an age of terrorism.
He and other lawmakers propose the equivalent of a new Manhattan Project - a reference to the program to develop the atomic bomb during World War Two - to respond to bio-terror threats:
"The goal of this effort is to take a major leap forward in our medical defense capabilities, to reduce the time from bug to drug, from several years to a matter of a few months," he said.
Right now, the amount of money Mr. Turner and others are proposing doesn't come close to the original Manhattan Project. The legislation proposes only $10-million in the 2005 fiscal year beginning in October to get the program underway.
Another Democrat supporting the bill is Donna Christensen, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A medical physician, like Congressman Turner, she says the anthrax attacks in 2001 revealed that the U.S. public health system suffers from a worrying lack of preparedness.
"The lack of readiness of our public health system is especially troubling, in light of the fact that infectious diseases continue to be the number one killer worldwide - malaria, AIDS, multi-drug resistant infections, and of course, dangers like SARS, pandemic flu, or threats of an even worse as yet unknown danger will be with us for the foreseeable future," he said.
"We need a wake-up call in America. It is well known that infectious diseases still exist. It is well known that the discovery of biological terrorist uses for a number of substances that we may not even be aware of is a grand possibility," said Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, another supporter.
Backers of the legislation believe it will attract bi-partisan support in the House, and hope for similar results in the Senate.
In a report accompanying the legislation, Congressman Turner says without the initiative, in his words, terrorists and enemy states developing weapons of the future will be far ahead of efforts to defend against bio-terror.