Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bird Flu (2): Bush Responds

Whadya know. Yesterday at his press confrence, Bush was asked about the spread of avian flu and answered very enthusiastically. It seems he's put a lot of personal thought into this (perhaps more thought than he did into selecting Harriett Miers for the Supreme Court). As he talked, he answered a number of the questions I asked in my last post. Here's the reporters question and his answers (transcript source: the Whitehouse):
Q Mr. President, you've been thinking a lot about pandemic flu and the risks in the United States if that should occur. I was wondering, Secretary Leavitt has said that first responders in the states and local governments are not prepared for something like that. To what extent are you concerned about that after Katrina and Rita? And is that one of the reasons you're interested in the idea of using defense assets to respond to something as broad and long-lasting as a flu might be?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Thank you for the question. I am concerned about avian flu. I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world. I am -- I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean. I tried to get a better handle on what the decision-making process would be by reading Mr. Barry's book [link] on the influenza outbreak in 1918. I would recommend it.

The policy decisions for a President in dealing with an avian flu outbreak are difficult. One example: If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country, and how do you then enforce a quarantine? When -- it's one thing to shut down airplanes; it's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu. And who best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move.

And so that's why I put it on the table. I think it's an important debate for Congress to have. I noticed the other day, evidently, some governors didn't like it. I understand that. I was the commander-in-chief of the National Guard, and proudly so, and, frankly, I didn't want the President telling me how to be the commander-in-chief of the Texas Guard. But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the President to move beyond that debate. And one such catastrophe, or one such challenge could be an avian flu outbreak.

Secondly -- wait a minute, this is an important subject. Secondly, during my meetings at the United Nations, not only did I speak about it publicly, I spoke about it privately to as many leaders as I could find, about the need for there to be awareness, one, of the issue; and, two, reporting, rapid reporting to WHO, so that we can deal with a potential pandemic. The reporting needs to be not only on the birds that have fallen ill, but also on tracing the capacity of the virus to go from bird to person, to person. That's when it gets dangerous, when it goes bird-person-person. And we need to know on a real-time basis as quickly as possible, the facts, so that the scientific community, the world scientific community can analyze the facts and begin to deal with it.

Obviously, the best way to deal with a pandemic is to isolate it and keep it isolated in the region in which it begins. As you know, there's been a lot of reporting of different flocks that have fallen ill with the H5N1 virus. And we've also got some cases of the virus being transmitted to person, and we're watching very carefully.

Thirdly, the development of a vaccine -- I've spent time with Tony Fauci on the subject. Obviously, it would be helpful if we had a breakthrough in the capacity to develop a vaccine that would enable us to feel comfortable here at home that not only would first responders be able to be vaccinated, but as many Americans as possible, and people around the world. But, unfortunately, there is a -- we're just not that far down the manufacturing process. And there's a spray, as you know, that can maybe help arrest the spread of the disease, which is in relatively limited supply.

So one of the issues is how do we encourage the manufacturing capacity of the country, and maybe the world, to be prepared to deal with the outbreak of a pandemic. In other words, can we surge enough production to be able to help deal with the issue?

I take this issue very seriously, and I appreciate you bringing it to our attention. The people of the country ought to rest assured that we're doing everything we can: We're watching it, we're careful, we're in communications with the world. I'm not predicting an outbreak; I'm just suggesting to you that we better be thinking about it. And we are. And we're more than thinking about it; we're trying to put plans in place, and one of the plans -- back to where your original question came -- was, if we need to take some significant action, how best to do so. And I think the President ought to have all options on the table to understand what the consequences are, but -- all assets on the table -- not options -- assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant.
He directly or indirectly answered most of my questions. I only wish he'd talked a bit more about securing the borders. But with his policy on immigration being what it is, he probably didn't want to ruffle any feathers. Ironic how he would talk about quarantining whole regions of this country (unpleasant, but perhaps necessary) but not talk about securing the borders against it in the first place (unpleasant, and surely necessary). The worst thing about politics is the politics. Anyway, props to Mr. Bush for staying on top of this.

Then today, I found this article on Drudge--it talks a bit about how the military's hands are tied (with re: police work) within the borders, etc.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush asked Congress on Tuesday to consider giving him powers to use the military to enforce quarantines in case of an avian influenza epidemic.

He said the military, and perhaps the National Guard, might be needed to take such a role if the feared H5N1 bird flu virus changes enough to cause widespread human infection.

...Experts fear that the H5N1 bird flu virus, which appears to be highly fatal when it infects people, will develop the ability to pass easily from person to person and would cause a pandemic that would kill millions.

"And I think the president ought to have all ... assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant," Bush said.

He noted that some governors may object to the federal government commandeering the National Guard, which is under state command in most circumstances.


"But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the president to move beyond that debate. And one such catastrophe or one such challenge could be an avian flu outbreak," Bush said.

The active duty military is currently forbidden from undertaking law enforcement duties by the federal Posse Comitatus Act.

That law, passed in 1878 after the U.S. Civil War, does not prohibit National Guard troops under state control from doing police work. But, unless the law is changed, it would keep them from doing so if they were activated by Washington under federal control.

While the law allows the president to order the military to take control and do police work in an extreme emergency, the White House has been traditionally reluctant to usurp state powers.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters he was not aware of any current planning by the military to help respond to a flu pandemic.

But he noted that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf region, Bush had asked Congress to consider giving the military control over initial response in dealing with major natural or other domestic disasters.

"Obviously the (Defense) Department has a tremendous amount of capability in a lot of areas. And we are a large force," Whitman said, noting also that the military had deployed field hospitals to Louisiana after the hurricanes.

Health experts are working to develop vaccines that would protect against the H5N1 strain of flu, because current influenza vaccines will not.

And countries are also developing stockpiles of drugs that can reduce the risk of serious disease or even sometimes prevent infection -- but supplies and manufacturing capacity are both limited.

Bush said he was involved in planning for an influenza pandemic, which experts say will definitely come, although they cannot predict when, or whether it will be H5N1 or some other virus.
Anyway, that's that. I'll keep following the story as I have opportunity.