Senate Majority Project

Monday, December 19, 2005

Frist Surrenders … to the French

Do You Want Fries With That Tax Break?

Today the New York Times reported about the Budget Cuts Senate leaders have agreed to in order to make room for $100 billion in tax cuts. The cornerstone of the remaining appropriations bill is the Defense bill funding, among other things, equipment and benefits for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this bill has become the Christmas tree that others are looking to hang pet provisions having nothing to do with defense in hopes that opponents would cringe at opposing a bill funding troops during wartime. Sen. Bill Frist decided to use this bill to ram through his misguided plan to let drug makers off the hook for producing vaccines that cause serious side effects, even death.
One of the last items added to the military spending bill was a provision sought by Mr. Frist that would shield drug makers from lawsuits related to vaccines that protect against biological agents or viruses like the one that causes the avian flu. The language would allow lawsuits against vaccine makers only if they engaged in "willful misconduct." The government would pay medical expenses and benefits to those injured or killed by vaccines.
Mr. Frist contends that the provision is necessary to encourage drug companies to make vaccines. But it is likely to draw criticism, with some arguing that it would be a windfall for those companies.

Likely to draw criticism … In fact it already has.

Among other things the Frist plan would remove practically all economic incentive to fully test and protect against side effects that could cause even more serious illness or deaths, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Supporters say that its necessary to encourage drug makers to manufacture vaccines for the avian flu.

The trouble with that argument is that a French vaccine maker recently signed a $100 million contract with the U.S. government to produce an avian flu vaccine…without any additional liability protections. And, this contract was fifth pandemic-related agreement that the company has entered into with the U.S. government since May 2004.

Maybe they were late getting Frist’s memo while it was being translated into French, because after signing the deal, the company’s spokesperson said,
"Full liability protection is a requirement for our participation in the development and production of a pandemic vaccine,’ said Len Lavenda, spokesman for Sanofi Pasteur.” [Washington Post, 11/17/05]
Or maybe the businesses making vaccines know that they can make a profit off the expanding vaccine market without the deal that Frist and the drug company lobbyists are ramming through on the back of the defense funding bill. In fact, industry analysts expect the market for new vaccines to expand dramatically in the next few years. Companies including Merck, Wyeth, GlaxoSmith Kline, and Novartis have all announced large investments in expanding their vaccine manufacturing capabilities … all without the sweetheart deal that Frist is pushing through.