Senate Approves $8 Billion for Bird Flu Plan

The Senate approved $8 billion in new spending on bird flu preparedness Thursday. Lawmakers said the money will fund a White House readiness plan that is expected to be announced soon.

Most of the money is targeted to large new government buys of a still-experimental bird flu vaccine and stockpiles of antiviral medications including Tamiflu. More than $1 billion was also earmarked for enhanced disease surveillance capabilities and public health preparedness.

The vote came hours after the Bush administration announced that the same company whose safety problems threw the U.S. into a flu vaccine shortage last year has been awarded a $62.5 million contract to make bird flu vaccine for American stockpiles.

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Vaccine Production

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt announced Thursday that vaccine maker Chiron Corp. would begin manufacturing vaccine against H5N1, the virus strain responsible for bird flu cases in Southeast Asia.

The company said in a statement that it would manufacture the vaccine in its Liverpool, England, plant, the same facility that was shut down by British regulators last year. That move left the U.S. without nearly 50 million expected seasonal flu vaccine doses and sent the government scrambling for replacements.

Chiron is again producing seasonal flu vaccine this year, though it has announced that it expects to produce less than the 18 million doses it had previously projected.

“The hard truth is that capacity doesn’t exist in the United States to produce vaccines at sufficient speed and in sufficient quantity to reach every American,” Leavitt told reporters.

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Fighting Bird Flu's Spread

Bird flu has not yet shown evidence of being able to spread between humans, a condition necessary to spark the pandemic that public health experts fear. The virus has sickened 121 people and killed 62 in Southeast Asia, according to an Oct. 24 update from the World Health Organization.

“An influenza vaccine effective against the H5N1 virus is our best hope of protecting the American people from a virus for which they have no immunity," Leavitt said.

The contract is the second for bird flu vaccine this fall. The government struck another deal in late August with Sanofi-Pasteur to produce $100 million worth of H5N1 shots.

But it is still unknown how many people could be protected with vaccines obtained from the two contracts. Both companies are making bulk forms of the vaccine, and researchers still don’t know how large of a dose will be needed to confer protection against H5N1.

Government plans so far call for the amassing of 20 million vaccine doses along with 20 million courses of antiviral medications, including Tamiflu. The U.S. so far has stockpiled only 2.3 million Tamiflu doses, enough for less than 1% of the population.

Tamiflu manufacturer Roche said on Thursday that it would temporarily suspend private sales of Tamiflu in part because of concern that corporations were hoarding the drug for employees.

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White House Plan

Bush is expected next week to unveil a long-awaited national bird flu preparedness plan. The plan is expected to include increased domestic vaccine production, buys of antiviral drugs, and protocols for prioritizing distribution of limited pharmaceutical resources in the event of an outbreak.

The plan will also include calls for state and local governments to come up with detailed action plans for use if H5N1 gains the ability to transfer from human to human. Some states already have such plans, Leavitt said.

“I think it is safe to generally characterize them as not adequate,” Leavitt said. “Part of that plan is a question of how we deal with what would at this point be limited supplies of antivirals or vaccines,” Leavitt said.

Hours later, the Senate voted to approve $8 billion for increased preparedness against a possible bird flu pandemic. The funding, part of a larger health spending bill expected to pass the Senate this week, more than doubles $3.9 billion already approved several weeks ago.

The plan originally faced opposition from some key Republicans, but opposition faded after supporters agreed to give the White House more authority over how the money would be spent.

“If the administration does come up with a good action plan, we won’t have lost any time,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a sponsor of the bill.

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By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary, HHS. News release, Chiron Corp. World Health Organization. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).