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Politics behind bird flu

Lawmakers grapple on how to handle potential spread of deadly virus
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It’s a disease that has already killed millions of birds in Southeast Asia and is spreading to humans across Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.  U.S. health officials fear the contagious and deadly Asian flu may be mutating, making it immune to antidotes, creating an international catastrophe.

According to Dr. Frederick Leung at the University of Hong Kong, “You would be surprised how fast that virus can travel from a Third World backward country farm into New York City.”

The flu spreads easily from birds to humans, like by eating infected chicken, and there are worries that it could spread human to human, through something as simple as kissing.  Airline passengers in places like Hong Kong are being scanned for the fever, but officials, including some in the United States, warn the Asian flu could end up killing tens of millions of people. 

“The world is obviously unprepared, or inadequately prepared, for the potential of a pandemic,” says Secretary Mike Leavitt of Health and Human Services.

One reason is because of poor monitoring overseas.  Another is because there are not enough doses available of the main anti-virus drug known as Tamiflu.  President Bush recently brought CEOs of six vaccine companies to the White House to address expanding the American stockpile. 

President Bush said, “The people of the country ought to rest assured that we are doing everything we can.” 

But in the United States, experts say there are less than 10 million doses of the vaccine and manufacturing millions more will take time.  Democrats argue the administration is moving too late.  They say the administration should relax patent issues, so dozens of companies can make the drug.  Something the pharmaceutical industry and the Bush administration oppose.

The other political flash point is over government plans for containing an outbreak.  The president suggests using U.S. troops, one of the first ever been proposals for domestic health crisis.

“Who best to be able to effect a quarantine?  One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move,” said Bush, addressing the issue.  “That’s why I put it on the table." 

The military was dispatched to help keep people out of cities along the Gulf following Hurricane Katrina, but the potential reliance on trained warriors in a fully-populated city instead of police startles some on the political right. 

“When you put them in a role that is more appropriate to domestic peace officers, who ideally are trained to respect the constitutional rights of the citizens they’re protecting — if you put soldiers in that role, if you put the 82nd Airborne in that role, you run the risk of collateral damage to civil life and liberty,” said Gene Healy of the Cato Institute.   

It’s a debate in part between scenarios.  Imagine being kept in your hometown and forced at gunpoint to stay in a quarantine.  But also imagine the chaos if you and millions of other Americans in the face of a pandemic are on your own.  As one observer noted, while the political fight over the Asian flu may be getting intense, just wait. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.