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Senate Debates $8 Billion for Bird Flu Plan

Proposed Bill Includes New Funds for Purchase of Vaccines
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 26, 2005 -- Senate Democrats pushed an $8 billion bird flu preparedness package on Wednesday, more than double a $3.9 billion preparedness measure passed by senators less than one month ago.

Supporters said the additional spending was needed because the U.S. remains highly vulnerable to bird flu.

But Republicans dismissed the bill, saying it was being used to politicize public concern over the disease.

The new bill, which is likely to face a vote on Thursday, seeks $3.3 billion to stockpile a flu vaccine against H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu. The federal government signed a $100 million deal with vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur to begin manufacturing a still-experimental vaccine for eventual U.S. stockpiles.

Antiviral Drugs

The bill also would devote $3.1 billion to purchase antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. Tamiflu and Relenza can be used both to treat and prevent flu infections. Although bird flu has developed Tamiflu resistance in some treated individuals, this is not unexpected. And flu viruses resistant to Tamiflu don't spread very well. Governments worldwide have scrambled to buy these antiviral drugs because it may have the ability to slow or mitigate the effects of bird flu in people.

The U.S. has stockpiled only 2.3 million doses of antiviral drugs and has contracted to buy several times more. Still, the purchase is far below a World Health Organization recommendation that countries secure enough antiviral medication to treat 40% of the population. The stockpiles are enough to treat less than 1% of the U.S. population.

"There's no question the United States is now woefully unprepared for an outbreak of human-to- human transmission of avian flu," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the bill's main sponsor.

Bird flu isn't thought to be able to spread well from person to personBird flu isn't thought to be able to spread well from person to person. But the disease has sickened 121 people and killed 62 in Southeast Asia since late 2003, according to an Oct. 24 update from the World Health Organization.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who leads the Senate Appropriations Committee, criticized the bill.

"That's just throwing money at the wall," Stevens tells WebMD. "You can't spend that kind of money. It's political gimmickry."

The bill seemed designed to put pressure on the Bush administration, which has yet to release a long-awaited pandemic flu preparedness plan.

Several other countries, including Canada, Japan, and the U.K., have completed at least preliminary plans for a possible bird flu outbreak.

"Where is the United States? Where is our response? The United States remains a big question mark," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass.).

Plan Soon Expected

The Bush administration is expected to soon release its preparedness plan. CDC Director Julie M. Gerberding, MD, told reporters several weeks ago that the plan is in its final stages but is being held up in part because of uncertainties over how much bird flu vaccine will become available.

Wednesday's bill also calls for more than $1.5 billion in new spending to increase hospital capacity and public health infrastructure in advance of a possible pandemic.

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