News - UPDATE 1-U.S. House approves $3.8 billion for avian flu
The U.S. House of Representatives early on Monday approved $3.78 billion to begin preparations for a possible avian flu epidemic. The bill would also shield manufacturers of vaccines and drugs from lawsuits during an epidemic.
The legislation, wrapped into an unrelated defense bill, still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate later this week.
The money would be used for stockpiling potential vaccine and drugs, training emergency officials and increasing international surveillance of the flu which has been sweeping through poultry flocks in Asia and more recently into eastern Europe.
The deadly animal disease has infected at least 139 humans, killing about half and scientists fear that if the disease becomes more easily transmitted to humans, a pandemic could unfold, killing millions across the globe.
Conservatives balked at spending so much money so quickly, and without making other cuts in the budget, at a time of deep deficits and huge expenses for Hurricane Katrina recovery.
Following late-night negotiations between top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee succeeded in including a provision to protect vaccine, drug and medical device makers against civil lawsuits if the products were used in a pandemic or epidemic.
Consumer and health groups opposed the vaccine liability provisions, which were sought by pharmaceutical companies, saying it would protect companies from "gross negligence."
Some lawmakers said the measure could make medical personnel and other emergency workers reluctant to get vaccinated if there was a chance they could suffer negative reactions and not get compensated.
"The Republican leadership ... get everything on their wish list, but nurses, firefighters, and ordinary Americans who will have to take untested vaccines and drugs get no money for compensation if they get injured," said Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy.
The legislation calls for a compensation fund but does not authorize any money for it. The bill "gives carte blanche to the vaccine companies, but doesn't provide a mechanism" for people if they are injured by a vaccination, said Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican.
The money was about half the $7 billion the Bush administration had requested. Earlier this year, the Senate passed legislation calling for $8 billion in funds to prepare for an avian flu pandemic. But conservative Republicans in Congress opposed the higher spending, citing concerns about the huge U.S. budget deficit.
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