BETHESDA, Md., Nov. 1 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush has outlined a long-awaited national preparedness plan for pandemic influenza, asking Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency spending to boost the country's readiness for an outbreak that could include avian flu.
In a speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush presented broad outlines of a plan that is expected to be released in more detail Wednesday on Capitol Hill. The strategy includes increasing preparedness in vaccine and drug production, disease surveillance and state and local emergency-response plans.
Three major influenza pandemics struck during the 20th century, and public health experts have warned repeatedly that another pandemic is overdue. Recent attention on avian flu, which has killed 62 and sickened 121 persons in Southeast Asia, gave the warnings new urgency and helped spurred policy makers into action.
So far, the avian flu virus strain H5N1 has not gained the ability to spread from human to human, but the prospect of such a mutation worries experts, because humans lack natural immunity to the virus.
"Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare," Bush said.
The plan includes $4.7 billion in government purchases and technology investments for vaccine makers to speed production of annual seasonal flu shots, as well as a still-experimental H5N1 vaccine. Bush said he also would ask Congress to give vaccine makers long-sought immunity against patient lawsuits as a way to entice more companies to enter the vaccine market.
Bush said the vaccine makers have been "flooded with lawsuits."
Only one company -- Aventis Pasteur -- currently manufactures injectable flu vaccine in the United States. The rest of the national supply comes from overseas plants. Part of the Bush administration's plan includes nearly $3 billion to help manufacturers develop more rapid ways of producing vaccines, which are now made in a months-long process using chicken eggs to duplicate flu viruses.
Billy Tauzin, a former U.S. congressman who now heads the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the plan "a good first step."
In addition to the incentives in Tuesday's plan, Tauzin said the industry also could ask for the government to relax antitrust rules that prevent companies from cooperating on vaccine development.
"I think there are a lot of other discussions that have to occur," Tauzin told United Press International.
The president stressed repeatedly there are no signs an avian flu outbreak is imminent, but said the country must move now to increase its readiness.
"If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare," Bush said.
Under the plan, money would go to domestic and foreign public health authorities to improve early detection of flu outbreaks, including nearly $600 million set aside to help state and local jurisdiction develop preparedness plans.
Bush said $100 million would be used immediately to help states develop response plans and coordinate them with the federal government, but experts warned the money probably would not be enough to prepare local public health departments, which are chronically underfunded.
Michael T. Osterholm, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense within the Department of Homeland Security, praised the president's outline as a sign flu preparedness has become "a clear national priority."
The proposed funding of local preparedness efforts, however, is "not going to do it," he told UPI.
"Local resources are strung out," said Osterholm, who also is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
The president's plan includes $1.4 billion for government purchases of anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, both of which have been in short supply as governments and private companies have scrambled to purchase stockpiles.
More of the plan's details are expected to be revealed on Capitol Hill at hearings Wednesday. Last week, the Senate approved $8 billion in new spending for avian flu preparedness, though the House has not yet acted. A Senate vote expected as early as Tuesday would offset approximately half the money with cuts in other government programs.
At least one lawmaker complained that the White House plan was inadequate. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the plan's proposed purchase of 20 million anti-viral drug-treatment courses would put the United States far below World Health Organization recommendation calling for governments to stockpile enough to treat up to half of their populations.
"The President's plan would only cover 7 percent and that just isn't enough," Schumer's statement said.
Todd Zwillich covers healthcare policy for UPI. E-mail: email@example.com