Friday, May 1, 2009

While evidence mounted Thursday that the swine flu virus has spread to the nation’s capital and touched the Obama administration, a House member charged the Health and Human Services Department with sitting on $1.3 billion in unspent anti-pandemic funding.

An advance man for President Obama’s trip to Mexico and a World Bank employee in the District have been tested and are suspected of having been infected with swine flu.

Rep. Kay Granger, Texas Republican, said in a letter this week to new HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that she is “very concerned, however, by reports that the Department of Health and Human Services has approximately $1.3 billion in unspent funds for the implementation of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza (NSPI).”

“I am particularly concerned that this large unobligated balance remains after I wrote to and spoke with [then-HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt] back in 2007 about the importance of acting expeditiously” to stock up on existing anti-viral flu medications and develop new ones.

Also Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. went far beyond official word on travel safety, saying he would advise his family not to “go anywhere in confined places now,” prompting several officials during the day to backtrack the gaffe-prone vice president’s words.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did not identify the advance man, who works for Energy Secretary Steven Chu and traveled to Mexico City on April 13. But he said that he has tested positive for Type-A influenza and possibly infected members of his family who live in Anne Arundel County, Md.

Mr. Chu has not experienced any symptoms, so he has not been tested. “The same is true of the president,” Mr. Gibbs said.

“He was asked if he ever came within 6 feet of the president and he said ‘No,’” Mr. Gibbs said. “He was not close enough to the president.”

Separately, Maryland and Virginia health officials each said they had two more probable cases of swine flu in their respective states, bringing the region’s total to 10.

Mrs. Granger’s letter was sent Tuesday, the same day that the White House said Mr. Obama would request $1.5 billion in emergency funding to combat the spread of swine flu, which has killed at least 150 people in Mexico and one person in the U.S. and which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is an imminent risk of becoming a global pandemic.

“Given that your Department has $1.3 billion in unobligated funds for pandemic preparedness, I am concerned that any additional funding Congress may provide through a supplemental appropriations bill or other means will remain unspent,” wrote Mrs. Granger, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

An HHS spokesman did not return a call for comment.

In a statement, Ms. Granger praised Mrs. Sebelius for ordering 12 million courses of anti-virals to replenish the national stockpile, and again reminded her that the $1.3 billion in unspent funds should be used to purchase additional anti-virals to treat patients until a vaccine is available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said official testing shows 109 cases of H1N1 virus, or swine flu, in 11 states in the U.S. with one fatality, a 2-year-old Mexican boy. State officials across the nation report 19 more confirmed cases and scores of suspected illnesses.

Mexican health officials have blamed 168 deaths and 2,955 illnesses on the swine flu, with national reporting agencies claiming 34 cases in Canada; 13 in Spain; eight in Britain; three each in Germany and New Zealand; two in Israel; and one each in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands.

However, later Thursday, Mexico said it would no longer release “suspected numbers” of swine-flu cases, saying they may be inflated, instead releasing only the much more stringently defined “confirmed” numbers - which are 12 deaths and 250 illnesses.

Despite repeated assurances about travel - “All modes of transportation are safe in America,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood - Mr. Biden’s fears are spreading wider. said nine Missouri housewives tried to cancel their flights this weekend to Cancun but were told that they would have to forfeit their tickets worth $3,000 if they did not reschedule the flight by May 12.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, is asking most major airlines to waive penalties for passengers to change their date of travel until at least June 1.

“My office has received numerous calls from New Yorkers with travel plans to Mexico concerned about their family’s health and safety,” Ms. Gillibrand said.

Signs of the swine flu outbreak are turning up in all walks of life in the U.S. and elsewhere.

• Saturday’s commencement ceremonies at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania will include a separate graduation for 22 education majors who recently returned from an academic trip to Mexico City. School officials told reporters that nobody has been sickened but the students could be in the incubation period, when people spread the disease without necessarily showing symptoms.

• About 300 American schools have been closed, including at least 200 in Texas, 62 in Alabama, and scattered closings in several other states.

• Sports events including state high school championships in Alabama and Texas and even a Special Olympics events in the latter state, have been postponed. Mexico’s pro soccer matches this weekend will be played in empty stadiums, and a pair of international games involving Mexican clubs have been moved to Colombia.

At the epicenter of the outbreak, Mexico City was a shadow of its usual bustling character Thursday, the day after President Felipe Calderon told residents to stay at home and warned that only essential businesses such as supermarkets, hospitals and pharmacies should be operating. He also suspended noncritical government services for five days beginning Friday. Mexican schools already had been shuttered.

On Thursday, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said at a news conference that the number of new swine flu cases is stabilizing and that a vaccine would be available in six months.

But WHO’s top flu official cautioned that case numbers frequently fluctuate and urged caution on Mexican numbers.

“It’s a mixed pattern out there,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda. “What’s happening in one part of the country is not necessarily what’s happening in another part of the country.”

In Luxembourg, according to wire service reports, European Union health ministers holding an emergency talks on swine flu agreed to work “without delay” with drugmakers to develop a pilot vaccine to fight the virus. U.S. scientists are racing to develop the key vaccine ingredient, a strain of the virus engineered to trigger the immune system. But they cautioned Thursday it would take months before enough doses could be ready for necessary testing in humans.

WHO also said Thursday that it would try to avert confusion over the nonexistent threat from pigs, which pork producers worldwide have complained of, by no longer using the term “swine flu.” The organization will instead refer to the virus by its scientific name, “H1N1 influenza A.”

• Stephen Dinan and Michael Drost contributed to this report.

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