Bush v. Bird Flu

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Preparing for the Flu: Bush

In announcing plans today to prepare the nation for combating a future worldwide wave of bird flu, President Bush used vocabulary and tactics that are familiar from his confrontation with global terrorism. "Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland—and time to prepare," the President said during a jaunt up to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Heavy spending has been a cornerstone of Bush's 9/11 response, and he geared up for a new threat by asking Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency funding for vaccines and antiviral medicines—even more than the record amount the Senate had approved in September. In another echo of national security policy, Bush is trying to go to the source overseas, where a pandemic would originate, by offering other countries incentives to identify and report outbreaks before they spread.

Administration officials tell TIME that their strategy is to detect and contain any problem overseas, show the American people that the President is in command and the government is doing whatever can be done to prepare, and inform the public so that the reaction to any instances of bird flu might be calmer. "Scientists and doctors cannot tell us where or when the next pandemic will strike, or how severe it will be, but most agree: At some point, we are likely to face another pandemic," Bush said. "And the scientific community is increasingly concerned by a new influenza virus known as H5N1—or avian flu—that is now spreading through bird populations across Asia, and has recently reached Europe." Bush's Homeland Security Council now includes a Special Assistant to the President for Biological Defense Policy. That official, Rajeev Venkayya, held a briefing for reporters on "Safeguarding America Against Pandemic Influenza." In conjunction with Bush's speech, the White House published a red, white and blue booklet, "National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza," which is available at pandemicflu.gov, a new Website of the Department of Health and Human Services. Bush's budget request includes $2.8 billion to accelerate development of cell-culture technology; $1.519 billion for the Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services to purchase flu vaccines; $1.029 billion to stockpile antiviral medications; $800 million for development of new treatments and vaccines; $644 million to ensure that all levels of government are prepared to respond to a pandemic outbreak; and $251 million to detect and contain outbreaks before they spread around the world. The pillars of the national strategy outlined in the booklet are "preparedness and communication," "surveillance and detection," and "response and containment."

Perhaps the most interesting part of Bush's talk was his discussion of the challenge of getting enough vaccine in a hurry when it's needed, and he began the difficult task of setting citizens' expectations so they don't expect overnight miracles. "One of the challenges presented by a pandemic is that scientists need a sample of the new strain before they can produce a vaccine against it," he said. "This means it is difficult to produce a pandemic vaccine before the pandemic actually appears—and so there may not be a vaccine capable of fully immunizing our citizens from the new influenza virus during the first several months of a pandemic." Taking a fresh run at an old goal, Bush said the "growing burden of litigation" had helped drive American vaccine makers out of business over the past three decades, and called on Congress to pass liability protection that would encourage more to enter or return to the business.

During a news conference in the Rose Garden in September when Bush was being hammered about his response to Katrina, he seemed eager to show how much he'd been studying and pondering the possible consequences of a flu pandemic for the nation and the world. He even recommended John Barry's epic The Great Influenza, about the epidemic of 1918, which new genetic research shows was caused by bird flu. Bush had started reading it in July and finished it at the ranch during his working vacation, the staff said. Despite the time, attention and enthusiasm Bush has brought to the issue, Democrats say it wasn't enough. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Bush's strategy is "several years too late" and that the country remains "unprepared." But the flu issue seems well-suited for Bush at a time when he is struggling to regain his political footing. It allows him to take executive action and show himself as preemptive, compassionate and decisive—qualities that have enthralled his supporters but had faded from view with his summer tan.