Statement of U.S. Senator Barack Obama on the Avian Flu

Washington, DC | October 18, 2005

Mr. President,

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 as possible.

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 the Congress.

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 lifetimes.

Thank you. I yield the floor.