We are continuing to witness the relentless spread
of avian flu, carried slowly but predictably by wild, migratory
birds from countries in Southeast Asia to Western China, to Mongolia,
and then over the Ural Mountains into Russia and Ukraine. From there,
avian flu has spread over the past week to Romania and Turkey, and
we have just learned, possibly into Greece.
Dr. Joseph Domenech, chief of the Animal Health
Service at the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization,
has been quoted as saying that "...we are not surprised."
Mr. President, at this point, no one should be surprised.
The experts have told us repeatedly that a flu pandemic is inevitable,
although the timing is unpredictable. In other words, the question
is not if, but when. This spread of avian flu is our warning signal,
and we need to heed this call to action.
If we're lucky, we'll have at least a year, or perhaps
several years, to prepare for a flu pandemic. But we might not be
so lucky. And regardless of whether it is this particular strain
of avian flu, H5N1, or another deadly strain, the time to act is
long overdue if we want to prevent unprecedented human suffering,
death, and economic devastation.
International health experts say that two of the
three conditions for an avian flu pandemic in Southeast Asia already
exist. First, a new strain of the virus has emerged to which humans
have little or no immunity. Second, this strain has shown that it
can jump between species.
The last condition--the ability for the virus to
travel efficiently from human to human--has not been met, and it
is the only thing preventing a full blown pandemic. Once this virus
mutates and can be transmitted from human to human, we will not
be able to contain this disease. Because of the wonders of modern
travel, a person could board a plane in Bangkok, Athens, or Bucharest
and land in Chicago less than a day later, unknowingly carrying
the virus. Indeed, we learned this lesson from SARS, which moved
quickly from Asia to Canada, where it led to many deaths.
As my colleagues know, one of my top priorities
since arriving in the Senate has been increasing awareness about
the avian flu. In April of this year, I introduced the AVIAN Act,
which is a comprehensive bill to increase our preparedness for an
avian flu pandemic. This bill was incorporated into a larger bill,
the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act, that Senator Reid and
I introduced two weeks ago. We need to move this bill as quickly
We also need to provide more funding to purchase
vaccines and antivirals and improve our ability to spot and isolate
a pandemic as soon as it begins. In the spring and summer, I worked
to secure $35 million in funding to fight the avian flu. Today,
some of this money is already helping the World Health Organization
to step up its international surveillance and response efforts.
But clearly much more money is needed. Last month,
I joined Senator Harkin and others in offering an amendment to the
DOD appropriations bill to provide almost $4 billion to fight the
avian flu. I am pleased that Senator Stevens cosponsored the amendment
and it was accepted into the appropriations bill. I hope that the
House will agree to this funding in conference.
Although we have begun to step up to the plate in
the Senate, it is unfortunate that none of the avian flu bills that
have been introduced have passed into law. Frankly, there's been
a lot of talk, but not enough action. And this isn't just true of
One year after publishing the draft pandemic flu
plan, the Administration has still not released the final HHS Pandemic
Flu Preparedness Plan. Half of states haven't published plans either,
and we know that many of these states will need substantial help.
This lack of planning is compounded by the fact that we still don't
have a FDA approved vaccine against avian flu, and the one drug
that many countries are relying on--Tamiflu--may be less effective
than experts had thought. The manufacturer is also struggling to
meet the demand, and it could take up to 2 years for it to make
enough for the U.S. stockpile, presuming this Administration finally
puts in an order for the drug.
I would ask my colleagues how many hearings and
briefings that they have sat through where witnesses and experts
have urged the United States government to be better prepared for
these types of crises.
The failure to prepare for emergencies can have
devastating consequences. We learned that lesson the hard way after
Hurricane Katrina. This nation must not be caught off-guard when
faced with the prospect of an avian flu pandemic. The consequences
are too high.
The flyways for migratory birds are well-established.
We know that avian flu will likely hit the United States in a matter
of time. With the regular flu season coming up shortly, conditions
will be favorable for reassortment of the avian flu virus with the
annual flu virus. Such reassortment could lead to a mutated virus
that could be transmitted efficiently between humans, which is the
last condition needed for pandemic flu.
The question is will we be ready when that happens?
Let's make sure that answer is yes. I urge my colleagues in the
Senate and the House to push this Administration to take the action
needed to prevent a catastrophe that we have not seen during our
Thank you. I yield the floor.