- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2005

Health care researchers and analysts yesterday painted a grim picture of how the United States would respond to a bird-flu pandemic as the government pressed companies to be prepared.

A bird-flu epidemic would be “more difficult and worse than a large terrorist attack, bomb, dirty bomb or airplane slamming into a building,” said Tara O’Toole, the chief executive and director of the Center for Biosecurity, a nonprofit health policy group and part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

A bird-flu pandemic in humans could cost the U.S. economy $675 billion, including lost work time and supply-chain disruptions, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released yesterday.

The report estimated 90 million Americans would be infected by avian influenza and 2 million would die.

Ms. O’Toole and other researchers urged business representatives at a bird-flu preparedness conference in Washington yesterday to assess how they would continue operating if a pandemic broke out in the U.S.

The conference came after the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday issued a checklist for businesses on preparing for a pandemic.

Suggestions included: planning for the impact of a pandemic on business, employees and customers; establishing procedures to operate during a pandemic; allocating resources to protect employees during an outbreak; and coordinating plans with state and local officials.

“In the event of a pandemic, planning by business leaders will be critical to protecting employees’ health, limiting the negative economic impact and ensuring the continued delivery of essential services like food, medicine and power,” said HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt.

Currently, the H5N1 bird-flu strain in Southeast Asia has infected 135 persons, killing 69, according to the World Health Organization. The virus, which has not entered the United States, has spread through bird-to-human contact.

But scientists are concerned the strain could mutate to a form easily transmissible from human to human, which would better allow the virus to become a pandemic.

Michael Osterholm, associate director for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense, said the current virus strain showed clinical similarities to the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed about 40 million people worldwide.

“I do believe we could be on the cusp of a 1918 pandemic,” he said.

The key to protecting Americans from an avian-influenza outbreak will be vaccines issued on a large scale, Dr. O’Toole said. “The problem is we don’t have any vaccine readily available,” she said.

The National Institutes of Health is working with several vaccine manufacturers to develop a bird-flu vaccine, but none is ready for the market.

The NIH also is stockpiling Tamiflu, the antiviral influenza drug by Hoffman-La Roche Inc. that is a viable treatment against avian influenza.

Roche yesterday agreed to license parts of production for Tamiflu to 15 drug manufacturers, according to U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who negotiated the deal with Roche.

Representatives for the Nutley, N.J., pharmaceutical company said the company is still in “advanced discussions” with the companies and no decisions have been made.

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