December 18, 2005

Congress seeks $3.8 billion for avian flu

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Sunday tentatively
agreed to earmark $3.78 billion to prepare for a possible avian
flu epidemic, about half what the Senate and White House had
wanted for stockpiling anti-viral drugs and vaccines and
helping communities plan for a health crisis.

The Senate had wanted $8 billion, and President Bush last
month requested $7 billion but faced resistance from fiscal

The bill does not include a provision sought by Senate
Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, that would
protect vaccine, drug and medical device makers against
lawsuits in a public health or bioterror emergency.

But Frist aides said the bill's text was not finalized and
would not rule out including a liability measure very late
Sunday night or early Monday.

The bird flu funds were included in a defense spending
bill, and the fate of that bill was uncertain in the Senate.

The House aimed to vote on it very early Monday and the
Senate would then take it up later in the week. But it contains
many controversial provisions, including opening up the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and some Democrats and
possibly some Republican moderates may try to block it.

Democrats in Congress had urged quick approval of the full
$8 billion, which would also be used to step up worldwide
surveillance of the disease and help localities cope with an
outbreak. But with Congress already reeling under Hurricane
Katrina cleanup and huge budget deficits, conservatives did not
want to spend the full amount at this time without cutting
other federal spending.

For the past several years, avian flu has been killing
poultry flocks in Asia and the animal disease has been
spreading globally.

At least 139 people have been infected with avian flu and
about half have died. But scientists fear a pandemic-style
human outbreak if the virus mutates in a way that allows
person-to-person transmission.