Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Mike Leavitt, President George Bush's nominee to be the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, could receive Senate confirmation today following a pair of hearings to consider his appointment.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to convene at 10 a.m., almost a week after meeting last Wednesday to initially question Leavitt. This time, the full committee is gathering to vote on the nomination. The first Senate Finance Committee hearing came a day after he appeared before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

If confirmed, Leavitt would head the federal government's largest department - HHS encompasses 300 programs, employs 66,000 people and is budgeted for more than $550 billion.

At Wednesday's meeting, he received a fair share of support, but committee members also pressed him on issues such as operational concerns at the FDA, added Medicaid funding and other funding to implement health care information technology.

While focusing on Medicaid matters, Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she would oppose any effort to "subject Medicaid to the financial uncertainties of block grants or formula changes." She added that the federal government should not force states to pay "the lion's share" of Medicaid costs.

At the prior day's hearing, Leavitt had called Medicaid "flawed and inefficient," adding that, "we can do better and expand access to medical insurance to more people by creating flexibility for our state partners and transforming the way we deliver it."

Also at the Tuesday hearing, senators urged Leavitt to appoint a permanent head for FDA. The agency has been without a commissioner since Mark McClellan left in March to serve as administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford has been in charge at the FDA since that time.

Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the FDA an "agency in crisis," and urged Leavitt to push for a permanent head by the end of the month. In response, Leavitt said he would do all he could to see that happen, but that ultimately it is up to the White House to make such a decision.

Before receiving Bush's nomination last month, the 53-year-old Leavitt was a three-term governor of Utah and remains the current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. If confirmed, he would replace outgoing HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, who more than a month ago said he would leave the post after serving during the first four years of the Bush administration. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 6, 2004, and Dec. 14, 2004.)

Including Thompson's departure, nine cabinet heads have tendered their resignations since Bush won re-election. There are 15 cabinet posts.

Biotech-Based Agriculture Is Growing

Biotech crop plantings continue to climb, according to a recently released report by an organization called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

It cited figures showing that biotech crop plantings increased 20 percent last year from 2003. Around the world last year, farmers planted 200 million acres of biotech crops in 17 countries. Those numbers reflect the 20 percent increase over 2003, when about 33 million fewer acres were planted.

The research also pointed to the growing significance of biotech crops in the developing world. Such data showed that 1.25 million more farmers planted biotech crops than in the previous year, 90 percent of which were in developing countries. In total, 8.25 million farmers planted such crops. Also, 11 of the 17 countries planting biotech crops last year were developing nations.

In the U.S., farmers planted 117.6 million acres of biotech crops, up 11 percent from 2003 and accounting for 59 percent of the global total of biotech crops. The continued growth resulted from significant acreage gains in biotech corn varieties and continued increases in herbicide-tolerant soybeans, with modest growth in biotech cotton as the adoption rate approached 80 percent last year.

Clive James, the ISAAA's chairman and founder, said that five developing countries - China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa - will significantly impact the global adoption and acceptance of biotech crops in the future.

Drug Companies Pledging Tsunami Aid

The pharmaceutical industry collectively has donated $178.3 million worth of cash, medicine and services to the global relief effort for tsunami-hit Asia and Africa.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association in Washington provided that figure, and said the intensification of aid comes amid fears that global contributions to the devastated areas could dwindle as public focus shifts.

Millions of doses of medicines have been sent, including antibiotics, antifungals, anti-infectives, vaccines for typhoid and hepatitis A, anti-diarrhea medicines and antibacterial treatments. Companies also are working with international relief organizations to send supplies as infant formula and bandages, as well as water-purification packets to prevent the outbreak of respiratory and water-borne diseases brought by lack of clean water.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington said that among its members, Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc. made an initial $1 million donation to the Red Cross and promised to match all employee donations to the relief efforts for six months. Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco, donated $500,000 and said it would match employee contributions up to $100,000, while Biogen Idec Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., donated $100,000 in cash to AmeriCares.

Agency Schedules Drug Safety Meeting

In the wake of Vioxx's removal from the market and questions about similar drugs, the FDA will hold a joint public meeting next month of its Arthritis Advisory Committee and the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee.

From Feb. 16-18, the committees will discuss the overall benefit-to-risk considerations (including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal concerns) for COX-2-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and related medicines.

The three-day meeting will be held in Gaithersburg, Md.

Staff Writer Chris Delporte contributed to this report.

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