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Bush meets with drug companies to discuss need for bird flu vaccine

WASHINGTON—President Bush met with major pharmaceutical company executives Friday and urged them to increase their manufacturing capacity and develop a vaccine against bird flu to prevent a deadly pandemic.

So far, the virus has not struck the United States. In Asia, where bird flu largely has been transmitted from birds to humans, 116 people have fallen ill with the disease since December 2003, and at least 60 have died.

Scientists warn, however, that if the virus mutates into a form that can pass easily from person to person, it could spread rapidly and kill millions of people. The bird flu could be more lethal than other kinds of flu because humans would have no immunity and there's no approved vaccine.

Bush huddled with the leaders of six drug companies—GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., MedImmune, Chiron Corp., Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur—and discussed what needs to be done to blunt the devastation at home if a bird flu pandemic struck worldwide.

"We received expressions of vigorous support from the vaccine industry, their willingness to aggressively help us prepare," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who attended the meeting. "We talked about the need for short-term and long-term preparations, talked about the importance of a vigorous domestic vaccine market and the need for us to be planning not just for the H5N1 (the bird flu virus), but for the long-term prospect of a pandemic."

But more than talk is needed to encourage vaccine makers to sink huge sums of money into expanding production capabilities for a vaccine that would take a long time to make and yield little profit, said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

"This is not one of those situations where I think you can just jawbone industry into making the investment," Obama said. "This is not something that the markets alone will correct. We will have to use the government as a market-maker."

Obama, who has been a leader in congressional efforts to prepare the nation for a possible pandemic, said the Bush administration should create incentives for such investments. For example, it could guarantee that the government will purchase a certain amount of vaccines, he said.

Before the president's meeting with the drug company executives, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president planned to talk to the manufacturers about what the government could do to help spur them to raise their production.

Leavitt told reporters after the meeting that Bush didn't discuss government assistance in any great detail. He added that the administration is in the process of formulating a comprehensive avian flu plan that will be unveiled later this month.

"We need to have anti-virals. We need to have vaccines. We need to have the capacity to deal with the American people and to tell them what's happening," he said. "We need state and local preparedness. Those are vital components to a comprehensive plan. Today, we talked about vaccines, but that's just one part of a comprehensive plan."

Bush on Tuesday said in a news conference that he's considering the use of troops to impose quarantine in the event of an outbreak.

Leavitt agreed that the manufacturers need to "have a sense of certainty" and suggested that could happen by going beyond a bird flu vaccine and producing other vaccines.

"By creating an ethic of vaccinations, for example, for the ordinary flu, it increases not only the health of our country, but the certainty of the capacity that we need in time of crisis," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AVIANFLU-BUSH

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