- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said yesterday that the administration soon would enter into contracts with manufacturers to produce a bird-flu vaccine, rapid tests to detect the virus and technology that would make the available vaccine go further.

At the same time, the government will not wait for the virus to arrive before granting liability protections to those manufacturers and others that make products needed to battle a pandemic.

“At some point in that process, we’ll need to deal with the issue of liability,” he said.

The avian flu has killed at least 88 persons in Asia and Turkey since 2003, the World Health Organization reports. Birds carrying the virus also have been detected in Italy, Greece and Nigeria. No cases of person-to-person transmission of the virus have been reported.

In December, Congress gave Mr. Leavitt the authority to declare when products are necessary “countermeasures” for a public health emergency. The manufacturers and distributors of such products will have sweeping liability protections.

Under the protections, people injured by a vaccine against bird flu would have to prove willful misconduct to bring a claim for damages. Critics have said that such a high threshold would make it almost impossible for people injured by a drug to file a lawsuit.

Mr. Leavitt said vaccine manufacturers may want the extra protections before conducting clinical trials.

“If you’re a vaccine manufacturer, you’re likely not going to want to move to that step unless you’ve got adequate liability protection.” he said.

Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said the protections were nothing more than payback to the administration’s corporate friends.

“It is not surprising they’re moving as quickly as possible to provide these protections for drug companies, some of which have a history of producing and keeping dangerous drugs on the market,” Miss Mather said.

Mr. Leavitt said there is no reason to think that the avian flu virus, known as H5N1, will stop its migration.

“At some point in time, there will be a wild bird that will be discovered [with the virus] in the United States,” he said. “That in itself won’t be an emergency. That is something we should expect.”

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