RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Bush is calling for $7.1 billion in emergency funding to protect against a flu pandemic. Speaking today at the National Institutes of Health, the president said he wants to have enough vaccine to protect 20 million Americans against the current strain of bird flu.
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President GEORGE W. BUSH: At this point we do not have evidence that a pandemic is imminent. Most of the people in Southeast Asia who got sick were handling infected birds. And while the avian flu virus has spread from Asia to Europe, there are no reports of infected birds, animals or people in the United States.
MONTAGNE: Joining me now to talk about the president's proposals is NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So right now the vaccine supply is far below the expected demand if there were a flu outbreak. How's the White House addressing that?
GONYEA: Well, as you mentioned, that $7.1 billion figure. They're going to address it by spending money and by, the president says, getting going right now on trying to do something about the issue immediately. Now that $7.1 billion would include: $1.2 billion for the government to buy--and this is from a White House fact sheet--enough doses of the vaccine against the current strain of bird flu to protect 20 million Americans; a billion dollars to stockpile more antiviral drugs that would lessen the severity of flu symptoms; $2.8 billion to speed the development of vaccines as new strains emerge. Obviously, that's something that now takes a long time.
And the president said it's important to develop new vaccines as quickly as possible. He also, as part of this today, asked Congress to deal with the problem of litigation. He says litigation is discouraging manufacturers from developing vaccines, and he says they need protection from liability as they do develop these things. It's something he's talked about in other areas of society as well, limiting lawsuits.
MONTAGNE: And, Don, what about the role of state and local authorities?
GONYEA: Well, the president says that they are coordinating with them, and Homeland Security will certainly be a big part of that. He wants more than a half-billion dollars just for states to deal with pandemic preparedness, including money to help them update plans that they may have in place now and to get plans in place for specific things that they may not even be thinking about now.
MONTAGNE: Just very quickly, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the White House was criticized over apparent lack of planning. Are the proposals today a response to that?
GONYEA: Certainly they want to reassure people with this announcement, but they're also mindful that people are skeptical, given how the response to Hurricane Katrina went, and the president very much--for political reasons as well--wants to send the message that they are on top of this one, that they're working on it.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.
NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.
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