President Bush Talks About Bird Flu Plan

President Bush said Tuesday that his flu pandemic plan calls for investing in technology for greater vaccine production and breaking down barriers to bring it online quicker.

In a speech at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Bush said the plan provides funding for early detection, containment and treatment of an outbreak.

The strategy also calls for improving the process of creating flu vaccines and stockpiling antiviral drugs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told CNN earlier Tuesday that a key element of the plan is preparing communities to identify and contain an outbreak as quickly as possible and to treat infected patients.

"A pandemic is unique among disasters. It could happen in 5,000 different communities around the world at the same time, and no central place can manage all of those difficulties, and so local communities need to be ready, and part of the president's plan is to assure that they are," Leavitt said. (Watch Leavitt discuss plans to fight the flu -- 3:40)

While it does not appear likely there will be a pandemic in the near future, Leavitt said, the United States needs to prepare for such an event now.

"We're not as well-prepared today as we want to be," Leavitt said. "We're better prepared than we were yesterday, and we'll continue to get better prepared every day as time goes forward."

By the end of the year, more than 4 million courses of antiviral treatment should be on hand, though that number is far lower than what the World Health Organization has urged.

The secretary said that antiviral drugs are only part of the solution.

"We need to have a comprehensive plan. The fundamental is vaccines," he said.

"We need everyone in America to be able to have a vaccine that will protect them and their children and their loved ones from having a pandemic flu, and we need to have the capacity to manufacture enough in six months that everyone could have one," Leavitt said.

Part of the president's plan, he said, will deal with what he called "junk lawsuits" that stifle the output of vaccine manufacturers.

"The manufacturers simply refuse to make it if they haven't got some protection, so that's part of the president's plan to provide that type of liability protection," Leavitt said.

The administration's announcement comes as disaster coordinators from Pacific Rim countries discuss ways to head off a flu pandemic. (Full story)

The focus is now on bird flu, which has spread to birds in 16 countries, infected 121 people and killed 62, according to the World Health Organization.

The bird flu virus H5N1 has circulated largely among flocks in Asia, though it has spread to birds in 16 countries, including Russia and parts of Europe. In all, more than 140 million birds have been killed to stem its spread, which scientists blame on migratory birds.

Thailand on Monday reported its 20th human victim of the disease since 2003 and the third this year. (Full story)

On Monday, Canada said it had discovered a strain of H5 avian flu in wild birds but was still testing to see if it was the N subtype.

So far, the disease does not appear to infect people easily, but health experts said they fear that it could mutate and acquire the ability to infect large numbers of people. Should that happen, without immediate and effective interventions to contain it, the global impact could be incalculable.

There have been three pandemics in the past century, and global health experts have said the world is overdue for another.

Garden-variety influenza causes about 36,000 deaths per year in the United States and is responsible for an annual total cost of more than $12 billion, according to a draft of the administration's strategy, obtained by CNN.

A pandemic of bird flu "could dwarf this impact by overwhelming our health and medical capabilities, potentially resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of hospitalizations, and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs," said the draft, dated October 24.

The Bush administration has sought about $70 million in next year's budget for mobile hospitals that could be set up in affected areas to handle large numbers of patients, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

On April 1, Bush added influenza viruses with pandemic potential to the list of diseases against which a quarantine can be imposed.

More than 80 nations have joined an international partnership based at the United Nations to fight the disease, should it emerge as a human threat.

Bush discussed the issue Monday in his luncheon meeting at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, McClellan said.

The U.S. government already is buying $162.5 million worth of vaccine against the H5N1 bird flu strain from two companies -- Sanofi-Aventis and Chiron Corp. It also is ordering millions of doses of Tamiflu and Relenza, two antiflu drugs believed to offer some protection against the bird flu.

Lawmakers angry at months of delay already have given Bush money to begin those preparations: $8 billion in emergency funding that the Senate, pushed by Democrats, passed Thursday.

The money is to be spent at the president's discretion, but senators said it should be used both for medications and vaccine and for beefing up hospitals and other systems to detect and contain a super-flu.