Senate Democrats

Reid: Now is the Time to Prepare for Pandemic Flu

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid delivered the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

“In 1918, the “Spanish” flu pandemic swept the world and claimed the lives of 50 million people – including half a million in the United States – before it had completed its deadly run.

“Today, public health experts are warning us that another flu pandemic is not a matter of if…but a question of when. They also tell us this next pandemic has the potential to be every bit as devastating as what the world witnessed nearly 100 years ago.

“A flu pandemic occurs when a new strain of flu emerges in the human population that can cause serious illness and death and can easily spread between humans.

“The avian flu – referred to by scientists as the H5N1 flu strain — already meets the first test. Roughly half of the 115 people who have been diagnosed with the virus to date have died.

“At present, all that stands between avian flu and pandemic status is the fact that scientists do not believe avian flu can be transmitted between humans. All known cases have been the result of transmission from birds to humans.

“However, scientists fear that it is only a matter of time before the avian flu virus mutates into a form that can spread easily from human to human.

“According to Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding:

“…many influenza experts, including those at CDC, consider the threat of a serious influenza pandemic to the United States to be high. Although the timing and impact of an influenza pandemic is unpredictable, the occurrence is inevitable and potentially devastating.”

“You don’t have to be an expert to understand the dramatic toll a flu pandemic could have on our nation and the world. Given our capacity for rapid travel around the globe and the interdependence of our economic markets – both of which have increased dramatically since the last flu pandemic – the human and the economic costs of the next pandemic are unimaginable.

  • A respected U.S. health expert has concluded that 1.7 million Americans would die in the first year alone of an outbreak.
  • A pandemic flu outbreak in the Untied States today could cost our economy hundreds of billions of dollars due to death, lost productivity and disruptions to commerce and society.

“Perhaps the only thing more troubling than contemplating the possible consequences of an avian flu pandemic is recognizing that neither this nation nor the world are prepared to deal with it.

“Administration documents tell us it will take several months to develop an effective vaccine against the avian flu — once we have been able to identify the particular flu strain in circulation. Administration officials tell us one of our best opportunities to limit the scope and consequences of any outbreak is to rapidly detect the emergence of new strain that is capable of sustained human-to-human contact.

“Yet we are not devoting adequate resources to effective surveillance abroad.

“The Administration has acknowledged we need a detailed pandemic plan outlining our national strategy to address a flu pandemic. Among other matters, such a plan needs to address who will spearhead our response to a pandemic? How will our response be coordinated across all levels of government? And how will we rapidly distribute limited medical resources?

“Yet our national preparedness plan is still in draft form, and we have not committed the resources to fund such a plan.

“We all know that state and local health departments will be on the frontlines of a pandemic. They will need to conduct surveillance, coordinate local responses, and help distribute vaccines and antivirals.

“Yet, we are poised to approve a $130 million cut for state and local preparedness funding at the Centers for Disease Control.

“We also know that once a flu strain has been identified, we will need to develop an effective vaccine and produce enough to eventually inoculate the entire U.S. population.

“Yet our existing stockpile of vaccines – assuming they are effective against a future as yet unidentified strain — may protect less than one percent of all Americans and we have only one domestic flu vaccine manufacturer located in the United States. It is estimated that if our capacity to produce vaccines is not improved, it could take 15 months just to vaccinate first responders, medical personnel and other high risk groups.

“Given it will take several months to develop, produce, and distribute a vaccine once we have one that is effective, we know that antiviral medication will be a crucial stopgap defense against a pandemic. The World Health Organization has recommended that countries stockpile enough anti-viral medication to cover 25 percent of their populations. Other nations, including Great Britain, France, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, Finland and New Zealand have ordered enough Tamiflu, an antiviral pill, to cover between twenty and forty percent of their populations.

“Yet the United States only has 2.3 million courses of an antiviral pill, known as Tamiflu, in its stockpile. Given current national and international production capacity, even if we were to increase our order of Tamiflu today, we have been told that the United States would have to wait until the end of 2007 before we could secure enough Tamiflu to cover just 25 percent of our population.

“The consequences of a pandemic would be far reaching – impacting virtually every sector of our society and our economy.

“We also know our medical community needs to be trained to distinguish between the annual flu and the avian flu so that an outbreak could be reported immediately. Doctors, hospitals and other medical providers must develop surge capacity plans so they can respond to a pandemic.

“Businesses also need to be prepared. They should be encouraged to develop their own plans, establish or expand telecommuting and network access plans, update medical leave policies and provide suggestions on how to promote employee’s health to help lessen the likelihood of exposure.

“The American public also needs to be educated about the importance of annual flu vaccines and steps they can take to prepare for and respond to an avian flu outbreak.

“Yet the Administration has failed to take appropriate action to prepare the medical community, business community, or the American public.

“We can do better. We need to do better. And, most importantly, we cannot afford to wait to do better.

“The federal government’s poor response to Katrina has only served to exacerbate concerns about the toll such an outbreak would have on our nation and the world.

“Given the very real possibility of an outbreak, its potentially severe consequences, and our relative lack of preparedness, we need to take immediate action on several fronts to prepare this nation and the American people for a potential outbreak and to reduce its impact should it occur.

“Among the steps necessary are:

  • Improve surveillance and international partnerships so we may detect a new flu strain early;
  • Prepare for a pandemic by finalizing, implementing, and funding pandemic preparedness and response plans;
  • Protect Americans through the development, production, and distribution of an effective vaccine;
  • Plan Ahead for a pandemic by stockpiling antiviral medications, medical and other supplies;
  • Strengthen our public health infrastructure;
  • Educate Americans by increasing awareness and education about pandemic flu;
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to commit to protecting Americans by devoting adequate resources to pandemic preparedness.

“Experts have warned us that an avian flu pandemic is inevitable. But the devastating consequences that could ensue from an outbreak are not – provided this nation and the world heed the science community’s warnings and take action immediately

“I propose we start by committing the resources necessary to protect Americans. We need not wait for a perfect plan on paper to start dedicating more resources to address this issue. We know today that funding certain programs can make dramatically reduce the consequences of a future avian flu outbreak. We also know that many of these programs are either unfunded or massively underfunded.

“Tomorrow, when we take up the Defense Appropriations Bill, Senators Harkin, Kennedy, Obama, and I, along with a number of my colleagues plan to offer an amendment that will ensure that we begin making the investments necessary to make sure this nation and the world do everything possible to ensure that history does not repeat itself and we do not have to relive 1918.”