U.S. Grapples with Bird Flu Preparations
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON — 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 disaster.
"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.
LOOKING FOR FUNDS
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 reporters.
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 absences.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Paul Eckert and Patsy Wilson in Washington)