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Bush Meets With Vaccine Firms on Bird Flu

Government Officials Attempt to Move Quickly to Counter Threat
By
WebMD Health News

Oct. 7, 2005 -- President Bush met with vaccine manufacturers Friday in an effort to coordinate a strategy for preparing the country for a possible avian flu pandemic.

The meetings came amid a week of flurried activity in Washington, over what public health experts have long warned as inadequate national preparedness for an outbreak.

Vaccine makers are in the process of stepping up production capacity that could be used to manufacture an avian flu vaccine in the event of an outbreak. But the ramp-up is expensive, and manufacturers and public health experts are now asking for a list of government incentives to entice production.

White House officials billed Friday's meeting as "a listening session" between the president and vaccine CEOs.

"One thing that we need to focus on is our manufacturing capacity," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

McClellan repeated White House support for greater lawsuit immunity for vaccine makers, a longtime goal of the industry.

Beefing Up Vaccine Supply

The Senate earlier this week passed $3.9 billion in spending targeted toward buying increased supplies of antiviral medications like Tamiflu. Experts consider such drugs a stopgap measure only if vaccine is unavailable.

Reports have also suggested that Bush may back an even larger spending package meant to purchase larger stockpiles of vaccine, drugs, and medical equipment like respirator masks and gloves that would be needed in the even of a national emergency.

"If there's a consensus view that more resources are needed, I have every expectation that the president would seek those," White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy tells WebMD.

What's Next?

Lawmakers introduced several bills this week providing a host of further incentives to vaccine markers, including large stockpiling programs and guaranteed purchase orders to protect firms from losses if they overproduce vaccine.

One manufacturer, Sanofi-Pasteur, signed a government deal in August to deliver $100 million worth of vaccine against the avian flu strain H5N1. But the deal is only a small percentage of what would be needed to vaccinate the U.S. population in the event of a pandemic.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said this week that the department was in negotiations over a deal to buy 81 million doses of antiviral medications. But lawmakers complained that production limitations could delay delivery of the drugs for years.

Avian flu has sickened more than 100 people and killed at least 60 since early 2004 in Southeast Asia. The possibility of the virus gaining the ability to easily spread between humans worries experts because humans have little or no natural immunity to the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that an avian flu pandemic could kill as many as 200,000 Americans.

This week's activity came after many months of warnings from public health experts about the risks of an outbreak and the nation's poor state of preparedness.

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