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Senate Backs $8 Billion For Bird-Flu Plan

By Todd Zwillich
Washington (UPI) Oct 27, 2005
The Senate approved $8 billion in new spending late Thursday to prepare the country for a possible avian-flu pandemic.

Lawmakers said the money would be able to fund quickly a White House flu preparedness plan expected as early as next week.

Most of the plan's funding will support government stockpiles of vaccines and anti-viral drugs such as Roche's Tamiflu. The plan -- attached to a larger health spending bill expected to pass this week -- also will increase disease surveillance and enhance the infrastructure needed to respond to a pandemic.

The amendment, sponsored by six Democrats, originally was opposed by some key Republicans due to its high price tag, but after the plan's sponsors agreed to give the White House more say over how the funds are spent, the amendment passed with a voice vote.

Thursday's vote more than doubled the $3.9 billion in avian-flu funds approved by the Senate earlier this month.

The vote comes just days before President George W. Bush is expected to unveil a national avian-flu preparedness strategy. The plan likely will include continued vaccine and drug buys, as well as calls for industry incentives, including protection from vaccine-related lawsuits.

Democrats used the amendment to criticize the White House for moving slowly on its preparedness proposal, despite a late-summer deadline.

"If the Administration does come up with a good action plan, we won't have lost any time," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the amendment's chief sponsor.

The House has not yet approved similar avian-flu spending, and it remains to be seen how much money Bush will request for the plan or how much Congress will agree to provide.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt declined to comment on the new spending Thursday, telling United Press International in an interview he wanted the president to present his preparedness proposal first.

It remains unclear whether avian flu can spread between humans, a condition necessary to spark the pandemic experts fear, but the virus has sickened 121 people and killed 62 in Asia, according to an Oct. 24 update from the World Health Organization.

The vote came just hours after Leavitt announced a $62.5 million contract with British vaccine maker Chiron Corp. to produce vaccine against H5N1, the virus causing avian flu.

The deal was the second announced this fall. Federal health officials signed another $100 million vaccine pact with Sanofi-Pasteur in late August.

Government plans call for amassing 20 million vaccine doses and the same number of anti-virals, including Roche's Tamiflu, but so far, U.S. stockpiles total only about 2.3 million doses of Tamiflu, which would protect less than 1 percent of the population.

The Bush administration's flu strategy also calls for states and local governments to formulate detailed procedures for use if H5N1 becomes able to transfer from human to human. Some states already have such plans, Leavitt told reporters Thursday, but he added, "I think it is safe to generally characterize (the plans) as not adequate."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he supported new spending on flu preparedness, but added he was frustrated because supporters had not detailed how they planned to pay for it.

McCain, a frequent administration critic, also seemed skeptical about the White House's long-awaited plan. Asked about the pending initiative, McCain referred to Richard Nixon's claims about a strategy to defeat the Viet Cong during the 1968 presidential campaign.

"We had a secret plan to win the Vietnam war, too. Remember?" McCain said.

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