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Avian Flu Pandemic

Location: Washington, DC

AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC -- (Senate - September 29, 2005)


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I thank the distinguished Senator from Alaska. I will try to be brief.

I just want to offer my strong support for the amendment Senator Harkin is going to propose and state why I think this is such an important issue.

Let me first say, that I am generally of the view that we should not be tacking on unrelated amendments to the defense bills.

The money in this legislation is badly needed by our men and women in uniform and I do not want to slow this bill down.

But, this amendment dealing with the avian flu pandemic is so important to our public health security--and our national security--so important to the lives of millions of people around the world, that it simply cannot wait. In fact, the situation is so ominous that Dr. Julie Gerberding, the Director of the CDC, said that an avian flu outbreak is ``the most important threat that we are facing [today].''

In light of these developments, I believe it is worth the U.S. Senate spending just a few hours on this critical issue, even if it is not directly related to the underlying legislation.

Over the last few months, we have heard alarming reports from countries all over Asia--Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Thailand--about deaths from the avian flu.

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, called H5N1, has emerged and 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, because of global trade and travel, we will not be able to contain this disease. We learned this lesson from SARS, which took less than 4 months to get from Asia to Canada, where it caused human and economic devastation.

When I started talking about this issue 7 months ago, many people thought that the avian flu was a mild concern, an Asian problem, an unlikely threat to Americans here in the U.S.

As time has progressed, the Nation's top scientists and experts have focused greater attention on the possibilities of an avian flu pandemic, and they have rapidly come to consensus that it is not a matter of if the pandemic will hit but when? It is not a question of whether will people die but how many? And the main question, the question that keeps me awake at night, is whether the United States will be able to deal with this calamity?

From what we have seen with the lack of readiness and dismal response to Hurricane Katrina, I think that all of us would have to conclude that the answer, at this point in time, is no.

Whether we are talking about having adequate surveillance capacities in our State and local health departments, having enough doctors and hospital beds and medical equipment for infected individuals, or having a vaccine or treatment that is guaranteed to work, I don't want to be an alarmist, but here in the U.S., we are in serious trouble.

Several of us here in the Congress--on a bipartisan basis--have taken the first steps needed to address this looming crisis. In April of this year, I introduced the AVIAN Act, S. 969 that would increase our preparedness for avian flu pandemic. Senators Lugar and Durbin and several others have cosponsored this act and I thank them for that. We need to move this bill as quickly as possible.

In May, I and Senators Lugar, McConnell, and Leahy included $25 million for avian flu activities as part of the Iraq supplemental. Today, this money is helping the World Health Organization to step up its international surveillance and response efforts.

In July, I included an additional $10 million to combat avian flu in the Foreign Operations assistance bill. That bill is currently in conference, and I hope this funding will be retained.

I am also working with Senate Defense authorizers on an amendment to require the DOD report to Congress on its efforts to prepare for pandemic influenza.

This report must address the procurement of vaccines, antivirals and other medicine; the protocols for distributing such vaccines or medicine to high priority populations; and how the DOD intends to work with other agencies, such as HHS and State, to respond to pandemic flu.

Today, with leadership by Senator Harkin, we are introducing an amendment to the DOD appropriations bill to provide $3.9 billion in emergency funds for avian flu activities. Senator Harkin has already outlined what this amendment does, so I will not rehash what he has already said.

The bottom line is that this amendment needs to be passed and passed as quickly as possible.

I know that $3.9 billion is a lot of money--especially given our fiscal situation today. But this is one issue on which we cannot be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If we don't invest the money now, this pandemic will hit America harder, more lives will be lost, and we will have to spend significantly more in resources to respond after the fact.

As we learned the hard way after Hurricane Katrina, the failure to prepare for emergencies can have devastating consequences. This nation must not be caught off guard when faced with the prospect of the avian flu. This amendment will help the Federal agencies to prepare the Nation to prevent and respond to avian flu.

America is already behind in recognizing and preparing for a potentially deadly and economically devastating avian flu pandemic that public health experts say is not a matter of if but when. We must face the reality that in this age when you can get on a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Chicago in hours, this is not a problem isolated half a world away but one that could impact us right here at home.

The need is great, and the time to act is way overdue. I urge my colleagues to vote ``yes'' and support this amendment.

To reiterate, Senators LUGAR, MCCONNELL, and LEAHY already worked with me to include $25 million for avian flu activities as part of the Iraq supplemental. I included an additional $10 million to combat avian flu in the foreign operations assistance bill. But as Senator Harkin noted, we need much more based on the briefing we received from the administration yesterday. We have to move now on this issue. It has to be moved rapidly. We have to build an infrastructure to create vaccines and to purchase enough antiviral drugs. I strongly urge that on a bipartisan basis we make this one of our top priorities. This is a crisis waiting to happen. If we are not prepared for it now, we will all be extraordinarily sorry.

The only other comment I will make is, I know times are tough with respect to our budget. I am working with my colleagues across the aisle to figure out ways we can come up with the money for Katrina and Iraq. This is a sound investment. If we don't make this investment now, we will pay much more later.

So I hope the amendment Senator Harkin is going to offer will get bipartisan support and receive the utmost consideration from this Chamber.

Thank you very much, Mr. President.

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