Bush BirdFlu Militaristic Plans
Bush Weighs Strategies to Counter Possible Outbreak of Bird Flu
By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 - President Bush said today that he was working to prepare the United States for a possibly deadly outbreak of avian flu. He said he had weighed whether to quarantine parts of the country and also whether to employ the military for the difficult task of enforcing such a quarantine.
"I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world," he said at a White House news conference.
The president emphasized that he was not predicting such an outbreak. "I'm just suggesting to you that we better be thinking about it," he told reporters, "and we are. And we're more than thinking about it, we're trying to put plans in place."
Since 2003, the avian flu has killed about 65 people in Southeast Asia who had been in contact with infected fowl. So far the virus has not mutated into a strain capable of transmission from one human to another.
If it does, scientists say that it could kill millions of people worldwide, reminiscent of the 1918-19 Spanish-flu pandemic, which claimed more lives than World War I. Because the virus is new, humans have little or no defense against it. It kills about half of those infected, and an outbreak could spread around the world in days.
Up to now, bird flu has not received extensive public attention in the United States. But Mr. Bush, in devoting a long and detailed reply to the subject, appeared intent on raising public awareness and promoting readiness, as well as demonstrating his own.
He referred to the "H5N1 virus," said he had read a book by John M. Barry on the 1918 pandemic, and had been briefed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the infectious disease unit at the National Institutes of Health.
An outbreak would pose difficult policy decisions for a president, Mr. Bush said, including the question of imposing a regional quarantine.
"It's one thing to shut down your airplanes, it's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu," he said. Doing so, Mr. Bush said, might even involve using "a military that's able to plan and move."
The president had already raised, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the delicate question of giving the military a larger role in responding to domestic disasters. His comment today appeared to presage a concerted push to change laws that limit military activities in domestic affairs.
Mr. Bush said he knew that some governors, all of them commanders of their states' National Guards, resented being told by Washington how to use their Guard forces.
"But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the president to move beyond that debate," Mr. Bush said. One such circumstance, he suggested, would be an avian flu outbreak. He said a president needed every available tool "to be able to deal with something this significant."
Congressional attention to avian flu has recently risen sharply. The Senate voted last week to provide $3.9 billion in emergency funds to plan for and react to a bird-flu outbreak. The House has not taken corresponding action. This reportedly followed a closed-door briefing on the dimensions of the flu threat by Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services.
Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said the vote and President Bush's comment reflected "some agreement that the United States is behind in getting prepared for avian flu and that the time to try to make that gap up is now."
More than 30 Democratic senators, including Mr. Obama, sent Mr. Bush a letter today asking him to release the administration's final plan for dealing with a pandemic influenza. The group expressed its "grave concern that the nation is dangerously unprepared."
While in New York last month to address the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush proposed an "international partnership" to combat the disease.
He said today that he had spoken "privately to as many leaders as I could find" at the United Nations about raising public awareness and ensuring maximum efforts to quickly report any instances of the disease to the World Health Organization.
The W.H.O. and the European Union have been urging countries for months to prepare for a possible pandemic.
The president said he had spoken to Dr. Fauci about development of a vaccine, but added that "we're just not that far down the manufacturing process." He said he wanted to encourage potential vaccine manufacturers to be poised to react urgently.
The United States last month ordered $100 million worth of a promising vaccine from the French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis.
When the secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, resigned in December, he was asked what health threat worried him most. He cited the avian flu.
"This is a really huge bomb," he said, "that could adversely impact on the health care of the world," killing tens of millions.