Avian and pandemic flu in political spotlight

Oct 7, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – Avian influenza and the threat of a flu pandemic were in the spotlight in Washington, DC, today as officials from 80 nations met to discuss the situation and President Bush was to meet with manufacturers of flu vaccines and drugs.

A State Department official warned the conference delegates that a pandemic would be "catastrophic" and begged them not to conceal any outbreaks, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report.

Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, was quoted as saying, "If avian flu does mutate to allow easier human to human transmission, the results would be catastrophic locally, regionally, and globally."

She added, "Working through a global partnership offers we think the best chance, perhaps our only chance, of confronting this threat effectively on all fronts."

The conference follows up on a Sep 14 speech by Bush at the United Nations in which he announced an international partnership on avian and pandemic flu. The 2-day meeting, hosted by the State Department and called the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza Senior Officials Meeting, ends today.

Yesterday, Health and Human services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt told the delegates, "The world is clearly unprepared, or inadequately prepared, for a pandemic of H5N1 influenza," according to a Reuters report.

Everyone at the meeting has agreed in principle to share outbreak information quickly in the interest of containing a potential pandemic, the story said.

The "core principles" supported by those attending the meeting also include donor support for countries that have been or might be affected by avian flu and a duty to work closely with the World Health Organization, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, as quoted in an Oct 5 Reuters report.

According to yesterday's Reuters story, unnamed HHS officials "hinted strongly" that countries that conceal flu outbreaks should not expect other countries to give them flu vaccines and drugs.

"We must share epidemiological data and samples with one another," one official told Reuters. "Without that kind of early cooperation, we will pull back to the next firebreak because we will have to begin to protect ourselves."

Meanwhile, Bush was scheduled to meet with heads of vaccine companies today to press for expansion of vaccine production capacity in the face of the pandemic threat, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press (AP).

McClellan said Bush and the company officials would discuss the problem of industry liability for harmful vaccine side effects, often cited as a reason many companies have quit making vaccines in recent years.

In related news, Senate Democrats this week criticized the Bush administration's preparations for pandemic flu and introduced legislation designed to improve them.

"We need to act, because the administration has failed to prepare adequately for a flu pandemic," news reports quoted Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts as saying.

The legislation was co-authored by Kennedy, Barack Obama of Illinois, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Evan Bayh of Indiana, according to AFP. The bill would:

  • Require the HHS secretary to complete a pandemic preparedness plan and stockpile enough antiviral medication to treat half of the US population
  • Expand vaccine production capacity and US global surveillance of the illness
  • Create a director of pandemic preparedness and response in the White House to coordinate federal response efforts

The Senate voted last week to provide $3.9 billion to stockpile an antiviral drug, develop vaccines, and expand surveillance against the threat of a flu pandemic. The measure was an amendment to a 2006 defense-spending bill. The House has not adopted a similar measure.

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