Thursday, October 6, 2005

President Bush yesterday met with top health and security advisers about ways to deal with an outbreak of avian influenza, as the administration’s foremost health official said “no one is prepared” for a catastrophic pandemic.

Mr. Bush summoned top U.S. and foreign vaccine manufacturers to a White House meeting today to discuss the acceleration of production.

“Avian flu is a global threat that is a serious concern,” said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. “We are moving forward on developing a comprehensive plan to make sure that we are fully prepared to address the threat that exists.”

The World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, predicted in the summer that bird flu likely will become the first human-flu pandemic since 1968. The virus — known as the H5N1 avian influenza — has killed or forced the slaughter of millions of birds, mostly in Asia but also in parts of Europe.

The virus has killed about 60 people, mostly poultry workers. Scientists say the toll has been limited because the illness does not spread easily among humans. But doctors fear the virus will mutate to spread easily.

Although Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt noted the risk of a pandemic, he said, “It is relatively low, but it is not zero.”

“Here’s the dilemma: We’re not prepared as a country. No one is prepared in the world. We’re not alone in this,” Mr. Leavitt said. “The good news is, we do have a vaccine.”

Mr. Bush said Tuesday that his administration was considering various plans for dealing with an outbreak, including boosting vaccine stockpiles, imposing quarantines and using the military to enforce such an option.

The U.S. government has awarded contracts for increased vaccine development and production. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda last week tapped MedImmune Inc., a Gaithersburg biotechnology company, to develop and test nasal-spray vaccines for influenza, including the H5N1 strain.

The institute, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, also has awarded multimillion-dollar grants to several other manufacturers, including a $100 million contract to Sanofi Pasteur Inc., the Swiftwater, Pa., vaccine business of French drug company Sanofi-Aventis Group.

But vaccines take months to formulate and manufacture, and they must match the flu strain almost exactly to be effective.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to introduce a bill to help expedite vaccine development and set up a better system for monitoring disease outbreaks.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill that calls for spending $3.9 billion to stockpile vaccine and bolster detection efforts against a global avian flu epidemic.

Millions have died in influenza pandemics, the worst of which occurred in 1918, when the “Spanish flu” virus killed as many as 50 million people.

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