Before the Senate acted, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt awarded a $62.5 million contract to Emeryville, Calif.-based Chiron Corp. to manufacture bird flu vaccine for a national stockpile. A competitor, Sanofi-Aventis of Paris, began manufacturing $100 million worth of a similar vaccine last month.
The Bush administration is putting the final touches on its plan for how to fight the next super-flu, in addition to stockpiling inoculations, amid growing concern that the H5N1 influenza strain spreading among birds from Asia to Europe could trigger a pandemic if it mutates into a form easily spread from person to person.
In the Senate, where critics say the administration hasn't moved fast enough to address the threat, lawmakers approved $8 billion in emergency spending to jump-start those preparations.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief sponsor of the proposal, cited estimates that 90,000 to 300,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide could die if left unprotected by an influenza pandemic. "A 21st century Black Death is not difficult to picture," he said.
The massive out-of-budget expenditure, in an amendment to a health, education and labor spending bill, would increase stockpiles of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, thought to be effective against current strains of bird flu. It also would stockpile vaccine, increase global efforts to detect and contain a super-flu, and boost emergency preparations at state and local levels.
Lawmakers said they were waiting for the administration's bird flu plan, which federal officials say is due very soon, and is expected to contain President Bush's own price tag.
The Senate action, said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., will perhaps "motivate them or enable them to come forward to help us grapple with this."
In a compromise, Harkin and Specter agreed that the emergency funds would be spent at the president's discretion, with input from Congress. Specter said that would make the money available when a health crisis arose, while giving the president flexibility to use it in the best way. The spending still must be approved by the House.
"It is very important to recognize that the money that we spend now will not be wasted even if this particular strain of the virus, H5N1, ends up not becoming a pandemic flu," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. "We know that over the next two, three decades there will be a pandemic flu. That's almost certain."
Leavitt stressed that preparations involve far more than stockpiles: "Tamiflu alone must not be the measure of our preparedness."
He said Thursday that the administration also would:
Beef up an early-warning system called BioSense to quickly detect a spike in illnesses that might signal the arrival of a super-flu. That computerized network gathers daily information on doctor visits and laboratory tests in different parts of the country.
Tell states and cities to develop their own pandemic plans, to spell out how vaccines and medicines delivered from the federal government's stockpile would then be distributed to their citizens.
If the pills don't reach the people, "lives will be lost," Leavitt warned.
The administration has said it hopes to stockpile enough vaccine for 20 million people, and enough antiviral medication for another 20 million. Chiron and Sanofi are producing vaccine in bulk, as scientists work out just how much is required in each dose to be effective, so the total number of shots bought so far is unclear.
The nation so far has ordered enough Tamiflu and Relenza for about 5 million people, Leavitt said. Tamiflu maker Roche Holding AG temporarily suspended shipments of the pill to U.S. pharmacies on Thursday because of hoarding, but Leavitt said the government had been assured its orders would be filled.
Also Thursday, Relenza maker GlaxoSmithKline said it would increase production of that drug.