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New Senate Leader Backs Drug Makers

Colleagues Expect Frist To Alter Measure Protecting Vaccine Producers From Lawsuits

Dec 24, 2002 | Detroit News

Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist's ascension Monday to Senate majority leader could end up helping drug companies.

Frist is author of a bill to protect vaccine makers from lawsuits over vaccine preservatives.

Frist maintains he is not the lawmaker who slipped that provision in a homeland security bill that passed in November.

But as the new Senate leader he will be responsible for renegotiating it as several Republican lawmakers unhappy with its inclusion in the bill have requested.

Two senators who objected to the provision said Monday that they expect Frist to honor the promise of outgoing Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to modify the liability protection as soon as Congress returns.

"I don't expect any change with respect to this commitment, and I will be working to ensure it is carried out when Congress reconvenes in January," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Frist "has not given us any indication to think otherwise."

Frist's spokesman said the senator has already begun talking with Snowe, Collins and others about changes.

But Frist still is hoping to pass separately his original bill, which included the liability protection and other measures aimed at securing a sufficient supply of vaccines.

The provision would stop pending and future lawsuits against vaccine makers from families who believe their children were harmed by the mercury-based preservative thimerosal.

Some people believe thimerosal can cause the debilitating neurological condition of autism.

To be on the safe side, the Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers in 1999 to take thimerosal out of their vaccines. Research has not proven thimerosal causes autism.

Eli Lilly and Co., the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant, created thimerosal and is viewed as the primary beneficiary of the legislation.

Although Frist consulted Lilly and other interested parties when writing his bill, his spokesman said the provisions came from an advisory commission that makes recommendations on federal vaccine policy.

Besides the vaccine legislation, Lilly has other ties to Frist, the Senate's only physician.

Lilly boosted the sales of Frist's book on bioterrorism published after Sept. 11, 2001, by buying 5,000 copies and distributing them to doctors around the country.

Frist's spokesman said Lilly's promotion of the book did not affect the company's relationship with the senator.

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