Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Oct. 27, 2005
Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise first to commend Senators SPECTER and HARKIN for their diligence and hard work on what is an enormous bill, particularly given the tight budget they had to work with. I also personally thank Senators SPECTER and HARKIN for adopting an amendment into the managers' bill relating to scholarships for low-income and minority students and for expansion of positive behavioral interventions and support within schools to encourage better discipline. I thank them and their staffs for working with us on this amendment.

In addition, it is my understanding that there has been a meeting of the minds between the two sides of the aisle around what may end up being the most significant aspect of the Labor H appropriations bill.

Yesterday, I joined Senators HARKIN, KENNEDY, and a number of my colleagues in introducing an avian flu amendment. I know we had been able to attach an amendment to the DOD appropriations bill that made significant headway in funding the work that needs to be done to prepare this nation for pandemic flu. Obviously, this Labor H bill was the more appropriate vehicle to fund preparedness activities. The fact that Senator Specter and Senator Harkin have agreed to work something out on this issue is extremely important.

I will mention a couple of things that I believe make this avian flu amendment so significant. A number of Senators have talked on the Senate floor very eloquently about the threat of avian flu and the lack of preparedness and relative inactivity in the United States compared to our European and Asian allies. In the United States, we do not have a national preparedness plan for a pandemic. We do not have a stockpile of antivirals. Our public health system is weak, and the vaccine infrastructure is fragile. All of these areas desperately need attention, and the amendment that I hope will be adopted unanimously will provide the funding to do just that.

I am not going to rehash what was discussed earlier, but instead I wanted to spend a few minutes on the non-health aspects of avian flu, because it is important to fully understand the scope of the potential problems that a pandemic might cause. Obviously, the health concerns should be our immediate focus, and the Harkin amendment and the avian flu bill I introduced back in April do just that. However, we cannot ignore the economic and social implications of the pandemic flu.

They deserve our urgent attention.

As Dr. Michael Osterholm has warned us, the arrival of a pandemic flu would trigger a reaction that would change the world overnight. We know that a vaccine would not be available for at least 6 months after the pandemic started. We also know that we only have enough antivirals in our stockpile to treat 1 percent of the Nation's population. As such, if an avian flu pandemic hits, foreign trade and travel would be reduced or even suspended in a desperate but fruitless attempt to stop the virus from entering new countries. This is not speculation. Some will recall that Hong Kong's Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food has already threatened to close the border with the Chinese mainland if the H5N1 strain of avian influenza moves into the human population.

Domestically, transportation would also be significantly curtailed as States or communities seek to keep the disease contained, and unaffected areas try to keep infection out. Such efforts at self-protection would have a devastating effect on the world economy, which relies on the speedy distribution of products. There would be major shortages of food, medicines, light bulbs, gasoline, and spare parts for military equipment. Potentially, we would have shutdowns in the production of microchips that fuel so much of our technology.

To use just one example, currently, two U.S.-based companies supply most of the protective face masks for health care workers around the world. Neither company would be able to meet increased demand during a pandemic, in part because the companies depend on multiple suppliers in multiple countries for the parts to make the masks.

Businesses today rely on the world's real time economy, and have not established alternative supply chains nor emergency plans for production and distribution. In a time of pandemic, the labor source could be severely affected as well, compounding the supply chain problem.

Our Government officials also have not yet addressed the social implications of a pandemic. We had a taste of that in what tragically happened with Hurricane Katrina. We witnessed desperation and confusion as people scrambled to survive and to find their loved ones. We are going to have to develop protocols and plans now so we can prepare the public for whatever public health measures may be needed, including possible quarantine or isolation.

The closest the world has come to this scenario in modern times was the SARS epidemic in 2003. Over a period of 5 months, about 8,000 people were infected and about 10 percent of those infected died. Once SARS emerged in China, it spread to 5 countries within 24 hours, and to 30 countries on 6 continents within several months. The economic consequences of SARS were staggering. The 6-month epidemic costs to the Asian-Pacific region alone were estimated at over $40 billion.

As avian flu is significantly more contagious and more deadly, you can only imagine the potential scope of economic devastation that we might face. Senator Harkin has mentioned that the warning bell is ringing and we need to heed its urgent call to action. Time is running out and this administration must act now if it is to prevent the severe economic, security, and health consequences from pandemic flu.

Let me close with one last comment. I heard some colleagues in discussions, both in the media and on the floor of the Senate, suggest that we should not succumb to panic. I know at one point an analogy was drawn between what we are calling for with respect to investments in pandemic flu preparedness and Y2K.

Let me just make two points. No. 1, we are absolutely certain that some form of pandemic will occur in our lifetime. We do not know if it will be caused by a H5N1 virus that mutates and spreads by human-to-human contact, similar to the 1918 pandemic. But unless history has completely taught us the wrong lessons, we can expect some form of pandemic that has severe consequences, and right now, we do not have the infrastructure to deal with it.

What that means is whatever investment we make now--for example, in developing a cell-based technology rather than an egg-based technology to develop vaccines--that is a sound investment even if we are lucky and this H5N1 virus does not end up mutating in such a way that it can cause a pandemic, because we will now be prepared for whatever pandemic occurs. We will have the infrastructure to rapidly produce the sort of vaccines that are necessary. This is a smart investment for us to make on the front end. The second point is one that, again, I think has been highlighted by what happened in New Orleans and the gulf coast. Sometimes the costs of doing nothing are so high that in the same way that you or I buy catastrophic health insurance hoping that we never have to use it, this is one of those situations where we have to devote the dollars to prepare and develop a plan, hoping that we never have to use it.

I am extraordinarily grateful that Senator Harkin, Senator Specter, and other leaders on this committee have been able to come to an agreement that should allow us to finally fund the preparedness and readiness activities that are going to be necessary for us to meet the challenge of avian flu.

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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