WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) said Tuesday that U.S. health officials have found no indication that a bird flu pandemic is near, but his administration is in the midst of developing a long-awaited plan to combat a worldwide outbreak.
“At this point we do not have evidence a pandemic is imminent,” Bush told an audience of health and government officials at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
"Avian flu is still primarily an animal disease. As of now, unless people come into direct, sustained contact with infected birds, it is unlikely they will come down with avian flu."
The president requested $7.1 billion from Congress to fight a pandemic, including $1.2 billion to stockpile vaccines for 20 million Americans. The government already has ordered $162.5 million worth of vaccine to be made and stockpiled against the Asian bird flu, more than half to be produced in a U.S. factory.
"In the event of a pandemic, we must have enough vaccine for every American," Bush said. "We can't waste time in preparing."
Part of the president's request, $2.8 billion, would be used for the technology to accelerate development of cell cultures that can enable scientists to create a vaccine that could be given to every American within six months of its production.
The president also announced the Web site www.pandemicflu.gov, where the public can learn about government efforts to quell the flu.
Bush said the bird flu (search) has affected more than 120 people and has had a fatality rate of about 50 percent. While the virus has spread in birds across the globe, no reports of the strain have been recorded in the United States.
"There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this time," Bush said. "But if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today."
Bush said fighting a pandemic is a lot like battling a forest fire. If not detected it can smolder and grow out of control.
"In the fight against avian and pandemic flu, detection is our first line of defense," he said.
U.S. officials are coordinating efforts to stem a global outbreak with the help of 88 countries and nine international health agencies. The president said it's imperative to ensure other countries are ready to detect and report outbreaks before they grow out of control.
Bush compared a possible pandemic to the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed more than half a million Americans and more than 20 million people worldwide.
Asian bird flu has killed more than 60 humans in Southeast Asia, mostly in Vietnam. It has not yet spread from human to human, but in the worst-case scenario outlined by international scientists, it could cause millions of deaths worldwide.
"The president ... believes, as I do, that there is no certainty this will occur but if it should, we need to be ready," Health and Human Service Secretary Michael Leavitt told FOX News.
The latest known case of bird flu was found recently in Canada, where nearly three dozen wild ducks tested positive for the H5 bird flu virus, officials reported Monday. But they said it probably wasn’t the H5N1 strain that is blamed for the deaths of humans.
A senior Defense Department source confirmed to FOX News that military intelligence at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency are tracking the migratory patterns of birds to see if the H5N1 virus is spreading east across the globe.
Bush said his plan would offer protection against a pandemic strain and help save lives immediately after an outbreak through anti-viral drugs.
"Anti-viral drugs cannot prevent people from contracting the flu but they can reduce the severity of the illness when taken within 48 hours of getting sick," Bush said.
Outbreaks can happen simultaneously in up to thousands of locations at the same time and unlike a flood, a pandemic "can continue spreading destruction in repeated ways that could last for a year or more," Bush said.
Critics have raised questions about why Bush administration officials, who recently have said the nation is not ready for an outbreak, did not have a plan ready earlier.
Last week, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced that French drugmaker Roche Pharmaceuticals agreed to sub-license the antiviral drug Tamiflu (search) to four U.S. firms to producec, enabling the stockpile target to be met.
But Tuesday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said Bush must go further, and get Roche to drop its patent for Tamiflu.
"Roche's monopoly is an immediate and grave threat to the health and well-being of every American," Kucinich said in a statement. "While sitting on the patent to the first and best line of defense against an outbreak, Roche is holding the world hostage. This administration cannot sit on the sidelines and allow this to happen.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats praised Bush for finally releasing a plan that they say was only created after their efforts over the past two years to push for federal preparation for the virus.
“I am pleased to see that the president has finally followed our lead and released his avian flu plan today,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in response to Bush’s plan.
In recent months, federal officials and lawmakers frequently have expressed concern that the bird flu virus could come to the United States and cause a pandemic. The virus has been transferred from bird to bird and from bird to human, but it has not developed to spread from human to human.
A half-dozen countries have slaughtered foul to prevent the spread. Some say a pandemic could put restrictions on international travel and commerce.
One doctor, Manny Alvarez, a FOX News medical consultant, praised the president's speech, saying the plan would prepare the nation for an outbreak.
"I think that we can be prepared," Alvarez said.
Bush said aside from early detection and drug stockpiling, the administration plan also seeks to coordinate federal, state and local government levels, including medical professionals, veterinarians and law enforcement officials to respond to an outbreak.
Federal health officials would direct states and cities distributing limited doses of vaccines and the antiviral medications Tamiflu or Relenza (search). First doses would likely go to workers involved in manufacturing the flu vaccine, health workers and first responders, followed by the most susceptible Americans, the elderly and the young.FOX News' Catherine Herridge and Melissa Drosjack contributed to this report