Bush's plan to fight bird flu relies on technology initiatives

President Bush on Tuesday announced plans for a $7 billion response plan for a potential flu pandemic that includes worldwide monitoring and surveillance and an online presence. But leading Democrats quickly criticized his response.

"We do not have evidence that a pandemic is imminent," but history suggests that the world someday is "likely to face" another emergency, Bush said at the National Naval Medical Center.

Last month, he announced plans for a global network of surveillance and preparedness intended to quickly detect and respond to disease outbreaks. To date, 88 countries and nine international organizations have joined the effort, Bush said. His plan includes a request for $2.8 billion to accelerate the development of cell-culture technology.

"The cornerstone of our strategy is to develop new technologies that will allow us to produce new vaccines rapidly," Bush said. The use of cell-culture techniques would allow for the faster development of vaccines if a flu outbreak occurs, he said. "Right now, most vaccines are still produced with 1950s technology using chicken eggs that are infected with the influenza virus."

Bush called for $538 million for pandemic preparedness. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt will be charged with bringing together state and local officials for the development of community-based flu-response plans and exercises.

To inform the public of White House efforts, Bush also announced a Web site that includes general information, as well as data on monitoring outbreaks, planning and response, travel and transportation issues, and research activities.

Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the House Homeland Security Committee, quickly panned Bush's ideas as too little, too late. "Our country is not as prepared as we need to be to effectively carry out his plan," he said in a statement. "You can't cram for a pandemic."

Federal agencies have long called for a concrete, national preparedness plan for a flu pandemic. Markey accused the administration of having "nickel-and-dimed preparedness while writing a blank check for the war in Iraq."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Bush's plan has a "gaping hole." Bush's plan would only provide vaccines for 7 percent of the population, though experts call for enough vaccines to cover up to 50 percent of Americans, he said.

Schumer, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and other Democrats were to gather on Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon to voice their opposition.

The Senate on Thursday approved language on flu pandemic preparedness as part of a fiscal 2006 spending bill. Of the $8 billion proposed for the effort, $750 million would go toward hospital preparedness and health information technology networks, $60 million would be spent on increased global surveillance, and $75 million would be for communications and outreach in the event of an emergency.

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