Bush Outlines Plan for Potential Flu Pandemic

President Bush on Tuesday announced plans to protect Americans from a possible avian flu pandemic. Noah Adams speaks with NPR health correspondent Julie Rovner about the looming threat of avian flu, which has killed at least half of those infected by contact with sick birds, and the president's proposals to prepare.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is on assignment. I'm Noah Adams.

Coming up, nine weeks after Hurricane Katrina, a talk with the editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

But first, this news. President Bush this morning unveiled the outlines of his plan to combat a potential flu pandemic, including a request for $7.1 billion in new funding. In a speech from the campus of the National Institutes of Health, the president noted that the current flu spreading among birds in Asia and Europe is not yet a worldwide threat to humans, but there are some ominous warning signs.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If the virus were to develop the capacity for sustained human-to-human transmission, it could spread quickly across the globe. Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare. It's my responsibility as the president to take measures now to protect the American people from the possibility that human-to-human transmission may occur.

ADAMS: And with us to talk about the president's plan is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

Julie, why is President Bush doing this now, making it so clear that there could be human transmission involved?

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Well, this plan was always promised for about now. We were talking about the end of October. It's something that the administration's actually been working on for more than a year. So this is nothing that just popped up. In fact, members of Congress and public health experts say that the US is actually behind most other countries in preparing for a major pandemic. It's not clear that it's going to be from this bird flu that's currently in Asia, but certainly there's a likelihood of a pandemic at some point in the future, and it would be better to be prepared than not.

ADAMS: Well, let's go through this plan briefly. The president said there are three main parts.

Pres. BUSH: First, we must detect outbreaks that occur anywhere in the world.

ADAMS: Now we're talking about outbreaks occurring anyplace in the world. Julie, how would that be done and what kind of tracking system would there be?

ROVNER: Well, this is the international cooperation part of the plan. Obviously, if there is a pandemic that starts in another country, the best way to stop it is to contain it while it's there. So the president wants $250 million to help those other countries train personnel to expand their surveillance networks and basically be ready to detect and contain a human outbreak.

ADAMS: And then there's this.

Pres. BUSH: Second, we must protect the American people by stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs and improve our ability to rapidly produce new vaccines against a pandemic strain.

ADAMS: Well, he makes it sound kind of simple there. I guess that's where the big money's got to be involved.

ROVNER: Absolutely. Nearly 3 billion of the $7 billion the president wants would go towards speeding development of cell-based vaccines, which, when scientists actually figure out how to do it, will be much faster than the current method which actually involves putting the virus into chicken eggs and having it grow into the vaccine. Another billion and a half dollars would purchase doses of bird flu vaccine that's now being tested, although it's not entirely clear that that will work because the virus hasn't mutated to the form where it can be passed from human to human. Then there's another billion dollars to purchase antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, which again may or may not be very effective against a pandemic flu which has not yet developed, but at this point, it's considered the best that we have particularly while a real vaccine will take several months to produce.

ADAMS: And here is the final piece of the plan.

Pres. BUSH: And, third, we must be ready to respond at the federal, state and local levels in the event that a pandemic reaches our shores.

ADAMS: And, Julie, what would this involve?

ROVNER: Well, the president wants about $600 million to help state and local governments prepare and test their pandemic flu plans and to prepare what they call surge capacity to help hospitals and medical facilities actually treat tens of thousands of patients who would clearly swamp hospitals.

ADAMS: Thank you, NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

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