Image: Chinese poultry market worker
A young Chinese poultry market worker waits for customers at a fowl market in Beijing on Nov. 4.
updated 11/6/2005 5:07:48 PM ET 2005-11-06T22:07:48

Don't worry if you missed it when the Bush administration released its draft in August 2004 for fighting a potential flu pandemic. So did most of the rest of the country.

The draft generated fewer than 50 public comments for the Health and Human Services Department to consider when assembling the final plan, a top agency official said.

By comparison, the Food and Drug Administration reported last week that it received 2,268 comments about whether to make the "morning-after pill" available without a prescription .

The interest in bird flu has grown dramatically over the past 14 months. So much so that a few lawmakers are questioning whether official Washington is overreacting.

"I'm not a medical doctor or a public health specialist, and I'm not saying we should do nothing," Rep. John Duncan said Friday at a congressional hearing, the third of the week on bird flu.

"In today's political climate, almost every threat is exaggerated, and legislators have to try to do everything possible to prove that they're doing more than anyone else in case something does happen," said Duncan, R-Tenn.

Democrats and Republicans have held numerous press conferences and congressional hearings to show they are working to protect the U.S. against a potential pandemic.

The administration took two days to roll out its plan last week. The president announced it on one day and on the next, the health secretary gave more details.

HHS head Mike Leavitt makes clear during every speech that even if a pandemic does not strike, the investment and planning will be well worth it.

The result, according to Duncan, is that the U.S. is getting ready to spend billions of dollars on medicine that it is not sure will work in a pandemic, and people everywhere are so scared they are hoarding the antiviral medicine Tamiflu, which also may not work.

Duncan raises the issue of whether, in this post-Hurricane Katrina environment, lawmakers are trying to score political points or just doing their best to avoid a repeat of the carnage that can result from being unprepared for a natural disaster.

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"I believe the American people want us to be safe rather than sorry," said Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a hearing of the House Governmental Affairs Committee.

"They will forgive us for doing things and spending money that may turn out not to be necessary if, in fact, we are going forward vigorously to prevent what could be a horrible situation," Sanders said Friday.

Leavitt said the investment in vaccine technology called for by the administration would save millions of lives in the long run, even if the bird flu virus never reaches the pandemic stage — when it spreads from person to person.

"This plan is not about H5N1 alone," Leavitt said, citing the name of the virus. "It's about general pandemic preparedness. And when we are finished implementing this plan, the United States of America will be a better and safer place."

The administration wants $7.1 billion in emergency spending. Democrats have sponsored legislation that calls for $8 billion.

Video: Pandemic flu plan Bush's plan would improve systems to detect and contain the next super-flu before it reaches the United States. It also would overhaul the vaccine industry so that scientists eventually could produce enough supply for everyone within months of a pandemic's appearance.

A bad pandemic could infect up to one-third of the population and, depending on its virulence, kill between 209,000 and 1.9 million Americans, according to the administration.

Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, said he agrees that the threat of a pandemic is serious, but he also believes that the worst-case scenarios overdo it.

"The ways it's being communicated to the public is that it's an inevitable scenario," Siegel said. "People are scared of having a bird feeder now and it's not even here in birds."

Despite his skepticism about the near-term threat, Siegel said he applauded the administration's efforts to enhance vaccine production. The money would be well spent, he said, even if the bird flu never reaches the pandemic phase.

"But I wonder how much of the rest will go to treating panic," he said.

Dr. Bruce Gellin, director of the National Vaccine Office Program, said he hoped that the effort to get ready — and do it better — was not based on political factors.

"I think there's pressure everywhere to be prepared," Gellin said. "The recent news showing that the 1918 virus was a pure bird flu virus reminded us that this virus can do bad things, and we have to be prepared for the worst."

The pandemic of 1918 caused at least 500,000 deaths in the U.S. and up to 40 million deaths worldwide.

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