Sunday, December 18, 2005

News - U.S. Congress seeks $3.8 billion for avian flu

U.S. lawmakers on Sunday tentatively agreed to earmark $3.78 billion to prepare for a possible avian flu epidemic, about half what the Senate and White House had wanted for stockpiling anti-viral drugs and vaccines and helping communities plan for a health crisis.

The Senate had wanted $8 billion, and President Bush last month requested $7 billion but faced resistance from fiscal conservatives.

The bill does not include a provision sought by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, that would protect vaccine, drug and medical device makers against lawsuits in a public health or bioterror emergency.

But Frist aides said the bill's text was not finalized and would not rule out including a liability measure very late Sunday night or early Monday.

The bird flu funds were included in a defense spending bill, and the fate of that bill was uncertain in the Senate.

The House aimed to vote on it very early Monday and the Senate would then take it up later in the week. But it contains many controversial provisions, including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and some Democrats and possibly some Republican moderates may try to block it.

Democrats in Congress had urged quick approval of the full $8 billion, which would also be used to step up worldwide surveillance of the disease and help localities cope with an outbreak. But with Congress already reeling under Hurricane Katrina cleanup and huge budget deficits, conservatives did not want to spend the full amount at this time without cutting other federal spending.

For the past several years, avian flu has been killing poultry flocks in Asia and the animal disease has been spreading globally.

At least 139 people have been infected with avian flu and about half have died. But scientists fear a pandemic-style human outbreak if the virus mutates in a way that allows person-to-person transmission.

Reuters AlertNet - U.S. Congress seeks $3.8 billion for avian flu

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