Saturday, December 10, 2005

News - Reuters AlertNet - Top Bush aides test bird flu preparedness

Warning an outbreak may be inevitable, the White House on Saturday conducted a test of its readiness for a feared bird flu pandemic and said federal agencies fared "quite well" without offering any details.

Cabinet secretaries, military leaders and other top officials took part in the four-hour tabletop drill, which officials said was designed to assess the level of federal preparedness for a possible outbreak of bird flu or another deadly virus.

"This is about being ready for what inevitably will come," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said.

But the White House refused to divulge details about the exercise and the test results, and officials said afterward that it was clear that state and local governments would have to assume a leading role.

"Quite frankly, I think we did quite well," White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend said of the federal agencies that took part in the exercise.

The White House test came one day after a Thai boy became the 70th person to die of bird flu, which usually strikes those in close contact with infected fowl or their droppings.

Experts fear the deadly virus, known as H5N1, will mutate into a form that can easily infect and pass between people, causing a pandemic.

"We're quite concerned now about this H5N1 virus as scientists suggest that it could, in fact, mutate into a virus of major concern. So we need to be ready," Leavitt said.

HHS has projected that in a pandemic 92 million Americans will become sick and that as many as 2 million will die. Schools will close, businesses will be disrupted and essential services may break down.

"We currently have no evidence that a pandemic flu in this country is imminent. That said, we are fairly warned, and the time to prepare for that pandemic is now," Townsend said.

The preparedness drill was conducted in offices next to the White House.

Approximately 20 officials took part, including Townsend, Leavitt, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

U.S. President George W. Bush did not participate.

"The exercises are just that. It's a drill, it's meant to test, it's meant to push federal resources to the breaking point and to ensure that we're prepared, that we identify gaps and then we plan to fill them. We accomplished that this morning," Townsend said.

She said the biggest lesson from the test was the leading role that state and local governments would have to play in responding to a pandemic.

"This is not going to be a federal answer to the problem," she said. "The federal government has got a support role to play. But frankly, I think, really very important is the state and local efforts."

Leavitt said officials discussed at length how they would deal with limited U.S. supplies of antiviral and vaccines.

"We lack the capacity in this country to manufacture the number of courses needed to give everyone a vaccine," Leavitt said, adding that the United States also needed a surveillance system to detect the virus before it spreads.

Bush, who went for a bike ride in Maryland during the preparedness drill, has proposed a $7.1 billion bird flu plan, but Congress has yet to fund it.

The plan calls for building stockpiles of influenza drugs, which would not provide a cure but which might help make the most vulnerable patients less ill.

"We urge Congress to fully fund the president's strategy," Townsend said.

Reuters AlertNet - Top Bush aides test bird flu preparedness

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