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. Bush Unveils U.S. Flu Readiness Plan

US President George W. Bush walks to the podium to speak at the William Natcher Center at the National Institues of Health in Bethesda, Maryland 01 November, 2005. Bush on Tuesday called for 7.1 billion USD in emergency funding for prevention and response to a possible pandemic of deadly influenza, whether 'bird flu' or another strain. AFP photo by Luke Frazza.

Bethesda, MD (UPI) Nov 01, 2005
President George W. Bush has outlined a long-awaited national preparedness plan for pandemic influenza, asking Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency spending to boost the country's readiness for an outbreak that could include avian flu.

In a speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush presented broad outlines of a plan that is expected to be released in more detail Wednesday on Capitol Hill. The strategy includes increasing preparedness in vaccine and drug production, disease surveillance and state and local emergency-response plans.

Three major influenza pandemics struck during the 20th century, and public health experts have warned repeatedly that another pandemic is overdue. Recent attention on avian flu, which has killed 62 and sickened 121 persons in Southeast Asia, gave the warnings new urgency and helped spurred policy makers into action.

So far, the avian flu virus strain H5N1 has not gained the ability to spread from human to human, but the prospect of such a mutation worries experts, because humans lack natural immunity to the virus.

"Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare," Bush said.

The plan includes $4.7 billion in government purchases and technology investments for vaccine makers to speed production of annual seasonal flu shots, as well as a still-experimental H5N1 vaccine. Bush said he also would ask Congress to give vaccine makers long-sought immunity against patient lawsuits as a way to entice more companies to enter the vaccine market.

Bush said the vaccine makers have been "flooded with lawsuits."

Only one company -- Aventis Pasteur -- currently manufactures injectable flu vaccine in the United States. The rest of the national supply comes from overseas plants. Part of the Bush administration's plan includes nearly $3 billion to help manufacturers develop more rapid ways of producing vaccines, which are now made in a months-long process using chicken eggs to duplicate flu viruses.

Billy Tauzin, a former U.S. congressman who now heads the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the plan "a good first step."

In addition to the incentives in Tuesday's plan, Tauzin said the industry also could ask for the government to relax antitrust rules that prevent companies from cooperating on vaccine development.

"I think there are a lot of other discussions that have to occur," Tauzin told United Press International.

The president stressed repeatedly there are no signs an avian flu outbreak is imminent, but said the country must move now to increase its readiness.

"If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare,"Bush said.

Under the plan, money would go to domestic and foreign public health authorities to improve early detection of flu outbreaks, including nearly $600 million set aside to help state and local jurisdiction develop preparedness plans.

Bush said $100 million would be used immediately to help states develop response plans and coordinate them with the federal government, but experts warned the money probably would not be enough to prepare local public health departments, which are chronically underfunded.

Michael T. Osterholm, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense within the Department of Homeland Security, praised the president's outline as a sign flu preparedness has become "a clear national priority."

The proposed funding of local preparedness efforts, however, is "not going to do it," he told UPI.

"Local resources are strung out," said Osterholm, who also is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The president's plan includes $1.4 billion for government purchases of anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, both of which have been in short supply as governments and private companies have scrambled to purchase stockpiles.

More of the plan's details are expected to be revealed on Capitol Hill at hearings Wednesday. Last week, the Senate approved $8 billion in new spending for avian flu preparedness, though the House has not yet acted. A Senate vote expected as early as Tuesday would offset approximately half the money with cuts in other government programs.

At least one lawmaker complained that the White House plan was inadequate. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the plan's proposed purchase of 20 million anti-viral drug-treatment courses would put the United States far below World Health Organization recommendation calling for governments to stockpile enough to treat up to half of their populations.

"The President's plan would only cover 7 percent and that just isn't enough," Schumer's statement said.

related report
FluWarp: Drug Supplies Might Double
Washington (UPI) Nov 01 -- President Bush Tuesday announced the launch of PandemicFlu.gov, the "official U.S. government Web site for information on pandemic flu and avian influenza."

By Kate Walker

The announcement came as part of a speech detailing a $1.2 billion national strategy for combating an influenza pandemic. The strategy is available to read on the Web site.

In a bird-flu exclusive, Nature magazine Tuesday published an article claiming the discovery of a new way to double world supplies of Tamiflu, the best-known anti-viral for the treatment of avian influenza.

Administering Tamiflu in conjunction with a generic drug called probenecid doubles the amount of time the anti-viral stays in the bloodstream, thereby doubling its concentration in blood.

When Tamiflu and probenecid are taken together, therefore, a half dose of Tamiflu is equivalent to a full dose of Tamiflu without probenecid, thereby doubling the world's potential supply.

Despite this new information, it is still necessary to increase production of anti-virals in face of a possible pandemic.

In other developments worldwide:

-- A regional economic summit due to begin in Bangkok Wednesday will be dominated by regional concerns over bird flu.

Government chiefs representing Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar will discuss action against avian influenza, which has thus far most seriously affected Asia, where 60 deaths have been reported.

"Bird flu is the common challenge that we face -- not just the countries within ACMECS but countries in the region and international community," said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, spokesman for Thailand's foreign ministry.

"Certainly we think it is time for us to work together, to pool our resources to deal with the challenge of the bird flu before it becomes a real crisis."

-- U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang have signed a "memorandum of understanding," ushering in a new era of cooperation for the two countries.

The cooperation is restricted to infectious diseases and has risen in response to growing global concern about the potential avian-flu pandemic.

-- In a two-day conference of disaster-management specialists held by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to coordinate regional response to avian influenza, the key issue discussed was transparency.

Both Alexander Downer, Australian foreign minister, and John MacArthur, infectious diseases adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development, highlighted the importance of openness with regard to avian influenza in response to concerns that some countries in the region may cover up outbreaks out of fear for the local economy.

Some 20 of the 21 countries in the APEC region have strategies in place for a bird-flu pandemic. The only exception is Papua New Guinea.

-- A collaborative effort between scientists from Tokyo and Wisconsin has found a faster way of tailoring a specific bird-flu vaccine, should a human outbreak occur.

The scientists have streamlined a pre-existing technique known as "reverse genetics." In traditional reverse genetics, the DNA of the virus is altered before being inserted into cells to be used as a vaccine, allowing the immune system to recognize and fight the modified virus.

The new procedure uses the same technique but reduces the number of molecules required to move the altered virus to the cells. While the original method requires around 12 molecules for transport, the new process needs as little as three.

This will streamline vaccine production in the event of a pandemic and should see the virus reaching consumers in less than the six months originally predicted.

-- Despite having suffered numerous outbreaks among its own flocks, China has followed the European Union and Saudi Arabia in banning the import of poultry and poultry products from 14 countries where avian influenza has been reported.

Thailand's 20th bird-flu sufferer, a 50-year-old woman from Bangkok, will survive the disease, officials report. The woman was immediately treated with Tamiflu upon detection of avian-influenza symptoms, and the anti-viral halted the spread of the virus.

Thirty-three wild Canadian ducks that have tested positive for avian flu are not believed to be infected with the H5N1 virus.

While it will take a few days for results to be confirmed, initial findings suggest that the birds carried a strain of bird flu not dangerous to humans.

-- In a preventative measure, South Africa is currently evaluating U.S.-made vaccines for the potentially fatal H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

Although no outbreaks of the virus have been detected in the country, officials are concerned that its place on the migration route between Siberia and Asia may put South Africa at increased risk of transmission.

-- Sydney has reported the rapid spread of a new bird-flu virus, this time affecting computers.

Hackers have taken advantage of curiosity about the disease to spread a virus called Naiva.A, which deletes files and allows hackers remote control of affected computers.

Known headers include "Outbreak in North America" and "What is Avian Influenza (bird flu)?"

The concern with avian influenza is that it might combine with a form of influenza transmissible from human to human and set off a deadly pandemic.

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