December 8, 2005

US grapples with bird flu preparations

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday planned
an exercise to see just how poorly prepared the country is to
cope with a avian flu pandemic, even as lawmakers in Congress
debated how much to spend for U.S. preparations.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus is spreading steadily among
poultry, pushing westward out of Asia into Europe.

Health officials fear it will mutate, become easily
transmitted among humans and spread rapidly around the world,
killing tens of millions of people.

If this happens, governments and experts agree it will
crash economies, damage industry and transform entire societies
as they hunker down to cope with the damage. Officials also
agree that no country is adequately prepared for such a

"We have done much to plan for a pandemic, but planning
alone is not enough," White House spokesman Scott McClellan
told reporters.

"Plans must be tested and improved upon. To that end, the
administration will conduct an exercise on pandemic
preparations and response this Saturday morning from 8 a.m.
until noon. This will involve top Cabinet and other government
officials, and will be conducted here at the White House."

The White House gave no details on what the exercise would
include. A simple tabletop exercise is an analysis of an
emergency scenario that resembles a board game that is designed
to elicit possible solutions.

The virus is known to have infected just 135 people since
2003 but has killed more than half of them. World health
experts are worried about how affected nations can even keep
track of the spread of the virus, let alone battle it.


President George W. Bush has asked Congress to allocate
$7.1 billion to fund his administration's bird flu plan, but no
measure has passed.

Congress has been working to approve the funds before
recessing this month for a month-long winter break.

But conservative Republicans have been alarmed by deficit
spending made worse with huge costs ahead for rebuilding the
Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit last August.

"We don't want to walk away having done nothing. But you
don't necessarily throw $7 billion at it," House Appropriations
Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, told

Democrats have countered that the $6 billion being spent
each month to wage war in Iraq is not being offset with
domestic spending cuts and neither should avian flu and
hurricane aid money.

California Democrats Tom Lantos and Nancy Pelosi said they
would introduce "comprehensive" bird flu legislation in the
House of Representatives that would include funding for Asian
countries. "Our bill will dramatically scale up our nation's
efforts to stop an avian flu pandemic at its roots," Lantos
said in a statement.

The U.S. government is working to stockpile antiviral
drugs, but it will take years to make and buy enough and there
are questions about how effective they can be against a
pandemic flu.

The U.S. plan also calls for accelerated vaccine
development, but better vaccine facilities will take years to
build and depend almost entirely on private companies.

Public health experts say little has been done to address
more immediate issues such as a lack of hospital space, basic
supplies and planning for school closings and workplace

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Paul Eckert and
Patsy Wilson in Washington)