MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Today President Bush outlined a strategy to prepare the country for a possible flu pandemic. Speaking at the National Institutes of Health, the president asked Congress for $7.1 billion to develop new vaccines, aid in early detection and make sure communities are equipped to respond. While there have been no cases of the avian influenza detected in the US, the president said preparations need to be made now. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.
DON GONYEA reporting:
The president's speech this morning was intended to convey an urgent message: that the threat posed by avian flu is real and that preparations should not wait for a pandemic to appear.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is reason to be concerned. In the last century our country and the world have been hit by three influenza pandemics, and viruses from birds contributed to all of them.
GONYEA: The president cited pandemics from 1918, 1957 and 1968. Millions around the world died. He said scientists can't tell where or when the next will strike.
Pres. BUSH: But most agree at some point we are likely to face another pandemic. And the scientific community is increasingly concerned by a new influenza virus known as H5N1, or avian flu, that is now spreading through bird populations across Asia and has recently reached Europe.
GONYEA: The danger for humans comes if that avian flu mutates in a way that allows for it to be spread from person to person, leading to a situation the president likened to a forest fire.
Pres. BUSH: If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smoulder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it.
GONYEA: The funding request to Congress calls for $1.2 billion to purchase 20 million doses of a vaccine to defend against a strain of avian flu currently known to exist in Asian and European poultry. Though it's not likely an existing vaccine would be a perfect match for a particular influenza, the president said it would likely provide some protection. The proposal also includes $2.8 billion for research on new vaccines and money for a supply of antiviral drugs. White House adviser Dr. Rajeev Venkayya spoke to reporters in a conference call today.
Dr. RAJEEV VENKAYYA (White House Adviser): While we can be hopeful that we will be able to contain an outbreak overseas, we can never guarantee this, and so we cannot ignore domestic preparedness, and therefore domestic preparedness represents the brunt of the budget that was described this morning.
GONYEA: In the past the president has suggested using the military to help with any necessary quarantines in the event of a pandemic. He did not talk about that today, but his press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about it later.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): The military has been directed to look at ways that they can support the state and local communities in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak. And so that's one of the things that they've been directed to do as part of this comprehensive national strategy that the president outlined today.
GONYEA: Confusion over the role of the military contributed to the breakdown in federal response after Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane damaged not just the Gulf Coast but also public confidence in the federal government's ability to respond. So the president hopes that by getting ahead of a possible pandemic, he's also reassuring the public the government will be prepared this time. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.