- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The United States is not prepared for the next flu pandemic, lacking the manufacturing capacity to provide 300 million doses of a vaccine for three to five more years, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said yesterday.

“What we all learned from [Hurricane] Katrina is that sometimes we have to think very clearly about the unthinkable,” Mr. Leavitt said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’re not as prepared as we need to be. … We will not have enough for everyone.”

Although stressing that chances remain slight, health specialists say there could be a global pandemic if the bird flu mutates into a form that can spread easily among people.

“We can’t put a number on how probable that’s going to be,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the infectious disease division of the National Institutes of Health. “It’s a low probability. When the consequences are unimaginable, you must assume the worst-case scenario.”

The United States, which has not seen any signs of the strain in birds or people, has enough doses for 4.3 million people.

President Bush has proposed stockpiling enough of the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza to provide for 81 million people, a goal drug manufacturers say they can reach by the middle of next year, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re not prepared for vaccination, that’s why we need to scale up. We are doing studies to extend the value of the vaccine … allowing us to vaccinate more people with the same doses,” so the time frame might be quicker, she said.

Mr. Leavitt said the low supply means state and local governments will have to make tough choices on how best to allocate the vaccine should an outbreak occur. The federal government has suggested that top priority be given to first responders.

The current avian-flu virus strain appeared in people in 2003. Sixty-seven persons — all in Asia — have died from the virus.

Nearly all the human victims caught the virus from close contact with sick chickens, with only one confirmed case of a person infecting another person. The fear is that the strain, called H5N1, will acquire the ability to spread easily from person to person.

Dr. Fauci said the chances remain slight, noting that the strain will have to genetically mutate in ways that are possible but “not necessarily inevitable.”

“We know it can jump from a chicken to a human,” he said. “If this virus was the seasonal flu with the inherent capability that the seasonal flu has of going from human to human, you would have seen an explosion of cases in Southeast Asia. … We’re not seeing that now.”

Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization said: “If we were to detect the emergence of the pandemic strain early enough, some models suggest that with the application of social distancing or quarantinelike measures and the rapid distribution of antivirals in that population, we may be able to significantly slow down or even stop the emergence of a pandemic strain.”

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