Missle scares and flu worries

Look for North Korea’s missile tests to do wonders for the bottom line of the oft-criticized U.S. missile-defense program.

Although the $100 billion the Pentagon has spent over 20 years on developing a way to intercept an enemy warhead has so far produced more misses than hits, the escalation in the North Korean threat will likely mean that the sky’s the limit for funding.

In the 2007 budget, the administration has requested $10.4 billion for missile defense. Some experts say a boost to as much as $15 billion is possible. This, even though North Korea’s test _ in which its long-range missile proved an utter flop _ demonstrated that any true threat against the U.S. mainland remains remote.

Early flu scare?

The Food and Drug Administration’s warning letter to vaccine-maker Sanofi-Pasteur Inc. ordering it to correct “significant deviations from current good manufacturing practices” sends a summer shudder through the public-health community.

Both the company and the agency say the contamination issue involves early production of concentrates of one of the three strains that will be mixed to produce protection against next winter’s flu and should not affect production. However, the situation is reminiscent of the 2004 shutdown of a British vaccine plant owned by Chiron that led to serious shortages of flu serum. Sanofi has committed to making about 50 million doses of flu vaccine for the U.S. market this year, or about half the total expected supply of shots.

The number of Americans getting food stamps has increased for the third year in a row, according to Department of Agriculture statistics. In 2004 _ the most recent year examined _ nearly 23 million people received the help. That was up from 21 million in 2003 and 19 million in 2002. Experts say rising unemployment, renewed eligibility for legal immigrants and regulation changes account for the jump. The Ag Department says it’s also a result of simplified rules and better outreach.

Just as Iran’s profile as a U.S. antagonist is growing, the only Capitol Hill lawmaker who speaks Farsi _ the Middle East country’s official tongue _ is in peril of losing his job. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who is embroiled in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling/bribery scandal, is not only fluent in the language but also is the only House or Senate legislator who has actually lived in Iran. Interested in the country since he hosted an Iranian exchange student in his home decades ago, Ney taught English in Iran in 1978, just before the country’s Islamic revolution. Now he’s in hot water after his former chief of staff and Abramoff himself have said Ney accepted gifts in exchange for legislative favors. Ney maintains his innocence.

All but overlooked in the coverage of the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi was the discovery by two U.S. soldiers of a stash of cash worth nearly $55,000 in the wreckage of the house bombed by U.S. warplanes last month. Two days after the top terrorist in Iraq died, the troops found a 6-inch-thick package of 42,500 euros _ the equivalent of more than $54,000 _ wrapped in paper and cardboard as the site was being bulldozed. Imbedded in the stack was a stray piece of shrapnel. Though clutching more money than either had ever seen, the soldiers dutifully turned the stack over to their platoon leader.

Apparently, Democrats think they can do better, at least in the slogan department. The Dems have just ditched their party’s old theme _ “Together, America Can Do Better” _ for what focus groups and pollsters told them was a far more compelling phrase: “New Direction for America.” Seems the new slogan better captured the notion of change, party leaders decided.

You can track how well Democrats are doing in their quest to take back the House on C-SPAN, which just announced it will televise debates in as many as 70 House races in the four months remaining before the November elections. The cable TV network also plans to focus in-depth on some of the most pivotal races.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)