WASHINGTON - President Bush warned Americans yesterday there is a possibility that a deadly influenza pandemic could break out around the world and said the nation should spend $7.1 billion to prepare for it.
By acting now, he said, "We can give our citizens some peace of mind, knowing that our nation is ready to act at the first sign of danger and that we have the plans in place to prevent and, if necessary, withstand an influenza pandemic."
He also said Congress must curtail lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, saying lawsuits have contributed to low profits and insufficient research and production of vaccines.
But his proposal for giving vaccine makers liability protection drew fire from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which said Mr. Bush's claim that lawsuits keep down vaccine production is untrue.
Mr. Bush gathered together five Cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and many of the country's top health officials for a speech at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to stress the need for action.
Because a new bird flu has broken out in Southeast Asia, he said the threat to America is serious but not imminent.
In an immediate response on Capital Hill, Democrats said that while the details of Mr. Bush's strategy won't be released to them until today, the plan seems to be a drop in the bucket because it would only cover 15 percent of the population. They said people hurt by new vaccines should be compensated.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) said, "Well, the good news is that the administration has acted and recognized that an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. The bad news is that they've acted late, they've acted too little, and they have not recognized that simply having vaccine available doesn't mean it will get where it's needed."
Government research and plans in the event of a pandemic and Mr. Bush's newly proposed strategy are found on the Internet at www.pandemicflu.gov. His strategy is aimed at quick detection of the spread of a new strain of bird-borne flu, including spending $250 million abroad for keeping tabs on the spread of the virus, stockpiling antivirals that reduce severe symptoms, funding research on new vaccines, and rapid response at all levels of government if the nation is hit.
The current strain of avian flu, known as H5N1, was first detected in late 2003, spreading among thousands of birds in Southeast Asia. So far it has infected 121 people in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, killing 62. It has now begun to spread to Europe. Studies are under way on whether 33 ducks in Canada have the deadly strain.
Mr. Bush said that while avian flu has a fatality rate of about 50 percent in humans, "at this point we do not have evidence that a pandemic is imminent." Most of those who were sickened had handled infected birds, he said. There are no reports of any infected birds or people in the United States.
Pandemic influenzas have struck three times in the past century. The 1918 outbreak killed more than 20 million people. There were pandemics in 1957 and in 1968, killing millions around the world and tens of thousands of Americans.
Mr. Bush said that the flu also causes economic chaos. He noted that the SARS outbreak that struck the Asian Pacific region three years ago cost at least $40 billion, including reduced airplane traffic to affected countries. The current outbreak means huge poultry populations must be killed.
Noting that he already has had his flu shot for protection against normal seasonal flu this year, Mr. Bush said that a pandemic would overwhelm the quantity and type of vaccines now available.
In arguing that the nation needs to spend more than $7 billion to get ready for a pandemic, he did not say where the money would come from.
Democrats complained that Mr. Bush's new plan is not adequate. While some countries, including Japan and France, have enough of the Tamiflu vaccine, which eases symptoms, for one-fourth of their people, the United States has enough for 2 percent.
Sen. Barack Obama (D, Ill.) said, "Let me just say: Mr. President, the United States cannot afford to have a Katrina-level preparedness or a Katrina-like response to an international outbreak of avian flu. With so many warnings and so much knowledge of the threat we face, there's no excuse for failure this time around."
Democrats have their own proposals pending. They also want to spend $600 million to improve public health infrastructure and $2 billion for antiviral medicine for half the U.S. population, not just for 20 million people as Mr. Bush is seeking.
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