Senate approves $4 billion to prepare for flu pandemic

Sep 30, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The US Senate voted yesterday to provide $4 billion for antiviral drugs and other measures to prepare for a feared influenza pandemic, but whether the measure would clear Congress was uncertain.

The Senate attached the measure to a $440 billion defense-spending bill for 2006, according to the Associated Press (AP). But the House included no flu money in its version of the defense bill, and a key senator said he would try to keep the funds out of the House-Senate compromise version. The Senate is expected to vote on the overall bill next week.

Almost $3.1 billion of the money would be used to stockpile the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and the rest would go for global flu surveillance, development of vaccines, and state and local preparedness, according to a Reuters report. The government currently has enough oseltamivir to treat a few million people, with a goal of acquiring enough to treat 20 million.

The funding measure was sponsored by Democrats, who called H5N1 avian flu one of the greatest threats facing the country.

"It's the midnight hour," Reuters quoted Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as saying. "We have to get moving on it now, not next year, not after some study group in the White House bangs this thing around for another three months."

But the story said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who is guiding the defense-spending bill through the Senate, promised to try to block the avian flu money, Reuters reported. He will have a chance to do that when House and Senate negotiators meet to forge a compromise on the bill, the story said.

Stevens argued that the avian flu "has not yet become a threat to human beings," according to Reuters.

WHO backs away from death toll estimate
The Senate funding move came the same day the United Nations' new avian flu coordinator warned that a flu pandemic could kill as many as 150 million people. But today another UN official downplayed that number, citing instead an official estimate of 2 million to 7.4 million.

The World Health Organization (WHO), part of the UN, announced yesterday the appointment of Dr. David Nabarro as the UN coordinator for avian and human influenza. Nabarro told reporters a flu pandemic could kill anywhere from 5 million to 150 million people, depending on the global response to it. For comparison, scholars have estimated that the great flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people.

At a news conference today, WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said pandemic toll predictions are "guesswork" and that Nabarro was just suggesting the range of expert opinion on the subject.

"You could pick any number—there's this vast range—and any of these numbers could be right," Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Thompson as saying.

But he also said the WHO believes the estimate of 2 million to 7.4 million deaths, based on a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "is the most reasoned position," according to a Reuters report.

As quoted by AFP, Thompson also told reporters, "We can't be dragged into further scare-mongering."

Southeast Asia, Finland work on preparedness
In other developments, Southeast Asian agriculture ministers agreed on a plan to fight avian flu over the next 3 years, while Finland said it wants to buy enough vaccine against H5N1 avian flu to protect all its citizens.

Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), meeting in the Philippines, approved a plan covering eight "strategic areas," according to an Associated Press (AP) report. The areas include surveillance, an alert system, vaccination, improving diagnostic capabilities, and setting up a disease-free zone.

A task force led by Malaysia is to coordinate the efforts, AFP reported. The task force has been assigned to develop detailed action plans and find donors for a proposed animal health trust fund. The AP said $2 million has already been pledged for the trust fund.

The ASEAN plan complements a 3-year plan drafted by the WHO, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Organization for Animal Health in May, according to the AP. The latter plan is to be presented to international donors in December.

Finland has told drug companies in Europe it wants to buy 5.2 million doses of an avian flu vaccine, enough to protect its whole population, according to an AFP report today. The Finnish government has asked legislators to provide 21 million euros ($25 million) for the vaccine stockpile.

Finland had an avian flu scare in August, when a flu virus was found in some gulls in a northern town. But it turned out to be a low-pathogenic strain, not the H5N1 virus.

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