Bush Outlines $7.1B Flu Preparations

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 1, 2005; 1:03 PM

President Bush asked Congress today for $7.1 billion in emergency funding to combat a possible influenza pandemic brought on by bird flu originating in Asia.

In a speech at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to announce a "comprehensive national strategy" against pandemic flu, Bush warned that although bird flu has not reached U.S. shores and remains primarily an animal disease, there is "cause for vigilance" because a pandemic could develop rapidly with devastating effects.

"Scientists and doctors cannot tell us where or when the next pandemic will strike or how severe it'll be, but most agree: At some point, we are likely to face another pandemic," Bush said.

"Because a pandemic could strike at any time, we can't waste time in preparing," he said. "So to meet all our goals, I'm requesting a total of $7.1 billion in emergency funding from the United States Congress."

Bush said that by investing that money now, the United States will not only strengthen its ability to protect against a global pandemic, but will "bring our nation's public health and medical infrastructure more squarely in the 21st century." Among the key elements of the plan, he said, is development of an ability to produce vaccines for a range of illnesses, including common seasonal flu.

"It is vital that our nation discuss and address the threat of pandemic flu now," Bush said, adding that "if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare."

Bush said the main goals of the new strategy are to detect outbreaks of avian or pandemic flu anywhere in the world, to stockpile vaccines and antiviral drugs while improving the nation's ability to produce new vaccines against a pandemic strain, and to prepare the federal, state and local governments to respond to a pandemic that hits the United States.

In addition to the emergency funding, Bush is asking Congress to pass legislation to protect vaccine manufacturers from liability lawsuits. He said one of the greatest obstacles to domestic vaccine production is "the growing burden of litigation."

"In the past three decades, the number of vaccine manufacturers in America has plummeted as the industry has been flooded with lawsuits," Bush said. "Today, there's only one manufacturer in the United States that can produce influenza vaccine. That leaves our nation vulnerable in the event of a pandemic. We must increase the number of vaccine manufacturers in our country and improve our domestic production capacity."

To keep citizens informed about preparations for a pandemic and preventive measures, Bush also announced the launch of a new government Web site, pandemicflu.gov.

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new type of flu virus emerges and adapts to humans, spreading as easily as normal seasonal flu does through coughing and sneezing. Because the virus is new, however, people do not have immunity to it, making the effects of the disease more serious.

"At this moment there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world, but if history is our guide there's reason to be concerned," Bush said today. "In the last century, our country and the world have been hit by three influenza pandemics, and viruses from birds contributed to all of them." He noted that a 1918 pandemic killed more than 500,000 Americans and more than 20 million other people around the world. Pandemics in 1957 and 1968 killed millions more, including tens of thousands of Americans, Bush said.

In a "preview" of the devastation an influenza pandemic could cause, a previously unknown virus called SARS (for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that emerged three years ago in rural China ended up spreading to 30 countries on six continents and cost the Asia Pacific region an estimated $40 billion, Bush said.

"All this was caused by a limited outbreak of a virus" that infected about 8,000 people, killed fewer than 800 and lasted about six months, Bush said. "A global influenza pandemic that infects millions and lasts from one to three years could be far worse."

So far, avian flu, which was first recorded in Hong Kong in 1997, has infected more than 120 people and killed at least 62. According to the World Health Organization, most of the people who contracted avian flu got it from contact with the blood or feces of wild or domestic fowl, mainly chickens and ducks. Thoroughly cooking the meat kills the virus, WHO researchers say.

Birds have been the main casualties to date. In Southeast Asia, more than 140 million reportedly have died from avian flu or have been destroyed to prevent its spread.

In his speech, Bush said the largest share of the money he is requesting from Congress -- $2.8 billion -- would go to a "crash program" to enable the quick production of new vaccines through "cell culture technology." This, he said, would replace the "1950s technology" that is currently used to produce vaccines using chicken eggs that are infected with flu virus.

"In the event of a pandemic, this antiquated process would take many, many months to produce a vaccine, and it would not allow us to produce enough vaccine for every American in time," Bush said. But by using cell culture technology, he said, "we should be able to produce enough vaccine for every American within six months of the start of a pandemic."

Bush is also asking Congress for $1.2 billion to buy enough doses of an existing vaccine to immunize 20 million people. The vaccine is based on the current strain of the avian flu virus and could initially offer "some protection against a pandemic strain," which would probably differ from the avian flu strain, Bush said.

In addition, Bush is requesting $1 billion to stockpile more antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, which cannot prevent the flu but can reduce the severity of the illness if taken within 48 hours.

Earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt made the rounds of the morning television news shows to tout the plan and urge communities to make their own local preparations for a pandemic.

"A pandemic is unique among disasters," he said on CNN. "It can happen in 5,000 different communities around the world at the same time. No central place can manage all of those difficulties, and so local communities need to be ready."

Scientists believe bird flu "will migrate or mutate slowly toward the type of flu that can be transmitted from person to person," Leavitt said on CBS. "We would not be ready if it were to happen instantly."

As part of the goal to "rebuild the vaccine manufacturing industry in America," Leavitt said on the Fox News Channel, "we need to have the capacity to produce 300 million courses of a vaccine for any strain of a pandemic flu."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company