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February 04, 2002
Campaign Calls for U.S. Pharmaceutical Companies to Allow Inspections for Bio-Weapons
    by William Baue

A non-profit watchdog is advocating mandatory inspection of chemical manufacturers capable of producing bio-weapons, a measure opposed by a U.S. pharmaceutical industry group.


Today, President Bush proposed a fourfold increase in the budget for countering biological terrorism threats, from $1.4 billion to $5.9 billion. Ironically, the administration is concurrently impeding ratification of the international treaty to the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC). The U.S. walked out on BWC negotiations late last year in protest over treaty violations by "rogue" states such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

However, the U.S. itself refuses to comply with the treaty for fear that mandatory inspections of chemical manufacturers would jeopardize trade secrets. Domestically, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) refuses to allow the inspections mandated by the treaty. PhRMA members include such giants as Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) and Pfizer (PFE) as well as mid-sized companies such as Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD).

Last fall, 20/20 Vision, a grass-roots action organization advocating environmentalism and disarmament, identified PhRMA's disregard of the BWC treaty as against the public interest and mounted a campaign urging PhRMA to comply.

In December, reports indicated that the anthrax mailed to Senators Daschle (D-SD) and Leahy (D-VT) probably originated in U.S. government or contractor labs. This news helped validate 20/20 Vision's campaign, illustrating that the threat of bio-terrorism originates not just abroad but also on our own back doorstep. Indeed, the U.S. government may have produced the very chemicals it now seeks to protect its citizens against. Despite these revelations, PhRMA continues to deny inspections, in defiance of BWC protocol.

"[Members of] PhRMA . . . chose not to change their stand after the recent anthrax attacks," said 20/20 Vision Public Outreach Coordinator Chris Demers. "I believe they see this as one of those issues that the public will never search deep enough to get [its] hands around, and, therefore, [PhRMA has] no reason to change what might be a politically unpopular stand."

20/20 Vision contracted the independent research firm Princeton Research Services to conduct a poll on Americans' attitudes toward chemical manufacturer inspections. The national poll canvassed 1,001 respondents between November 15 and November 25, 2001, inquiring whether respondents supported mandatory inspections of facilities capable of producing biological weapons, or voluntary inspections, as the Bush administration proposed.

The poll found overwhelming support for mandatory inspections, as the BWC stipulates, with 79 percent of respondents in favor and only 14 percent endorsing voluntary inspections. Furthermore, three-quarters of respondents said inspections were important for ensuring that facilities are not producing bio-weapons, while only 11 percent believed that such inspections would jeopardize trade secrets. A larger number of respondents, 71 percent, also said the U.S. should help create an international agency to monitor BWC treaty compliance.

"The Bush administration is focusing on the wrong things," said 20/20 Vision Executive Director James K. Wyerman. "Rather than focusing attention only on tracking down the perpetrators after a horrific bio-attack has occurred, we should be supporting preventative measures, such as those inspections and verification measures supported by the American public, that would reduce the risks of such an attack happening in the first place."

20/20 Vision is also harnessing the power of shareowner action to convince PhRMA members to allow inspections. Mr. Demers is coordinating group and institutional investor action. The Social Investment Forum posted on its website a letter that individual investors in pharmaceutical companies can send to senior management. Ultimately, 20/20 wants PhRMA to declare publicly its support for mandatory routine inspections.

"We hope that educating shareholders of pharmaceutical companies will lead many of them to engage companies, forcing companies [to take] a longer look at the issue, [to realize] how unthreatening these inspections actually would be, and [to change] their tune to save face with a concerned and educated group of investors," said Mr. Demers. "Our greatest hope . . . is that if push comes to shove, [investors] may consider selling their shares of that company or speaking out at shareholder meetings."

 

 
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