updated 9/29/2005 8:57:48 PM ET 2005-09-30T00:57:48

The Senate voted Thursday to provide $4 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stockpile anti-flu medicine to protect people against bird flu and prepare for a potential outbreak.

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By voice vote, senators agreed to tack the proposal onto next year’s $440 billion defense spending bill. The Senate still must approve the overall defense bill, and a vote is expected next week. Then, the Senate must work out a final version with the House, which did not include money for bird flu preparedness in its defense bill.

In recent weeks, the United States has stepped up preparations in case the virus — which has already killed or led to the slaughter of millions of birds in Asia and Europe — sparks an influenza pandemic.

The virus has killed just 60 people thus far, largely because it has not been known to spread easily from person to person. If that changes — and flu viruses mutate regularly — global health officials warn it could trigger a deadly worldwide outbreak that could kill millions of people.

The vote was a victory for Democrats, who sponsored the measure. They feared the U.S. was not ready for a possible outbreak, and pressed their concerns in speeches in which they said the bird flu one of the United States’ greatest threats.

“If we have learned anything from the recent disasters on the Gulf Coast, it is that we must confidently prepare for disasters before they strike so that we are not left picking up the pieces,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sponsored the measure.

About $3 billion of the Senate-approved money would be used to buy the anti-flu drug Tamiflu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has called for a Tamiflu stockpile to treat 20 million people, yet there are only enough pills on hand to treat a few million.

The rest of the money would be used to detect and contain the avian flu around the world, provide grants to local and state health departments, and educate the public.

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