State Department Hosts Int'l Conference on Bird Flu

Amid growing public fears about an outbreak of avian flu (search), President Bush met Friday with members of the private sector who could prove instrumental in blunting the impact of an epidemic through the creation of a vaccine.

Across town in Foggy Bottom, the State Department hosted officials from 80 countries and eight international organizations, all worried about how to prevent or contain a possible pandemic.

Click in the box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' James Rosen.

The conference is part of an effort to codify a common set of goals and tactics, in other words, to construct what Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt (search) calls a "web of defense" against the avian flu.

"The world is obviously unprepared, or inadequately prepared, for the potential of a pandemic," he said.

Originating in Asian bird species, the avian flu, also known as the H5N1 virus, has led to the preventive slaughter of millions of birds and to the infection of more than 100 human beings, slightly more than half who died.

Nearly 80 percent of the human infections occurred in Vietnam, the rest in Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

But the flu is spreading. On Friday, Romania reported its first three cases of avian flu, all in birds.

U.S. officials fear a single transcontinental flight could bring the virus to American shores.

"We know these things are possible, we don't know when they're going to happen, though most of the experts think its not a question of whether they will happen, but simply when they will happen," said Kent Hill, assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Bush met Friday executives from Merck, Glaxo-Smith-Kline and four other pharmaceutical manufacturers.

No avian flu vaccine exists, and the United States has only 2 million doses of antiviral medication, one-tenth of what officials say they believe is needed in the event of an outbreak in the nation.

"Right now, we have a severely limited manufacturing capacity for a flu vaccine. As we work to expand that capacity, that will help us have the public health infrastructure in place in the event that there is a flu outbreak," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

The latest set of facts led House Democrats to write Bush Friday urging him to come up with a national plan.

"We have only one domestic manufacturer of injectable flu vaccine. The supply of antiviral medications in our national stockpile is insufficient to meet potential needs. State and local health officials lack the necessary resources to detect, contain and respond to an outbreak. A national plan has not been finalized, making it difficult for states and localities to do their own planning," wrote House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and a dozen others.

In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (search) issued travel warnings for sections of China and other Asian countries following outbreaks of "Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome," or SARS (search).

The warnings were ultimately lifted, but not before U.S. officials concluded the Chinese had withheld information about the spread of SARS.

The immediate goal of Friday's international dialogue over the threat of avian flu is to bring about what officials refer to in diplomatic speak as "transparency."

"If this should happen in a small village in Thailand, we need to know about it as soon as possible," Leavitt said.

Senior Bush administration officials working on this issue will visit Asia next week. If there is an outbreak in that region, the United States is hoping to contain it there, a strategy that could entail an airlift of antiviral medications to the affected areas.