Congress continues to comb through the fine print of the fiscal 2006 budget, making reductions on a program-by-program basis. Lawmakers this week rejected a White House proposal to cut spending on water projects by the Army Corps of Engineers. But they backed the president's request for money to send manned space flights to Mars.
The government also has loosened the purse strings to prepare for bird flu. That includes a $7 billion plan to use the antiviral drug Tamiflu while continuing research on other antidotes.
Estimates on the worldwide economic fallout from bird flu range from the tens of billions ... to the hundreds of billions of dollars. So between the projected health and financial trauma, U.S. officials are scrambling to get ready.
Even with attempts by the USDA to dispel rumors of a coming bird flu pandemic, the government appears to be taking the threat of a major outbreak of the disease seriously. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told members of Congress, in a classified closed-door meeting, that bird flu could conceivably kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. After hearing the report, the Senate quickly passed an appropriations bill totaling $3.9 billion to buy and stockpile huge quantities of vaccines and antiviral medications.
The bird flu virus already has taken more than 60 lives in Southeast Asia, resulted in the destruction of millions of birds, and has been found in domestic bird flocks from Viet Nam to Romania. The toll on human lives and the economies of several countries from Asia to Europe will suffer in one way or another.
With the specter of Asian bird flu looming over the U-S, scientists will begin experimenting in January to see if the nation's limited supply of an experimental bird flu vaccine can be augmented. The current vaccine requires two large doses to become effective. If the experiment is successful, the size of the required dose may be reduced. Preliminary research funded by the National Institutes of Health with a different vaccine indicates the approach may work.
And President Bush has proposed stockpiling the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza for 81 million people. According to officials at the Centers for Disease Control, this is almost 20 times the current number of doses available in the U-S. The C-D-C will not be able to purchase anymore of the drugs until Congress releases the money.