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Pandemic Flu: Potential for U.S. Economic Recession (Part II)

The debate continues about the likelihood of an outbreak of bird flu, otherwise known as Pandemic Flu, or simply, H5N1 variant (variant because of the belief that the H5N1 strain will need to morph at least once more before the jump to humans becomes a serious issue).

There were two important related developments this past week.

US Establishes New Protocols For Interagency Fight Against Pandemic. Basically, this discusses the need for the resources of both DHS and DoD to be pooled and mobilized to fight an outbreak of Bird Flu. Included in the resource pooling would also be Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others. President Bush's 2005 National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza is provide here for reference.

What becomes very interesting is that in the latest Defense spending bill, a mere $13.2 million to address avian flu research and monitoring was provided. But the bill was passed without $650 million in pandemic preparedness spending that had been included in an earlier version of the bill. The earlier bill was vetoed by President Bush because it set a timetable for starting a US withdrawal from Iraq.

The exclusion of the pandemic money doesn’t mean Congress won't appropriate anything for that purpose this year, but it does suggest that a considerable delay is likely, said Richard Hamburg, government relations director for Trust for America's Health, a public health advocacy group based in Washington, DC.

"This is going to delay completion of the initial commitment by the president to supply at least $7.1 billion in funding," he said, referring to Bush's request for pandemic preparedness funds in November 2005. "And we're certainly concerned about the fate of those dollars and whether they'll go into another vehicle."

The deleted $650 million included $625 million for vaccines, antivirals, other medical supplies, and diagnostic and surveillance tools, according to a text of the earlier bill that was vetoed (HR 1591). The sum also included $25 million to compensate individuals for any injuries caused by H5N1 influenza vaccines.

Back in April, I posted Pandemic Flu: Potential for U.S. Economic Recession in which the potentially strong negative effects an outbreak of Pandemic Flu would have on the U.S. economy.

In response to this post, a comment was left this week by Robert E. Armstrong, Ph.D. & Mark D. Drapeau, Ph.D. of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University in Washington, DC. With their permission, it is reproduced here.

While the medical response to pandemic flu will be important to controlling its spread and limiting its toll, there are considerable non-medical issues related to flu preparedness that are essential for ensuring the continued well-being of the nation's economy. Planning for Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Continuity of Government (COG) is critical to maintaining the overall viability of society. Thus, while we rightly prepare for the flu, we must be equally prepared to function during the flu. The Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the DOD's National Defense University has prepared a number of freely-available items which can help civilians be prepared both before and during the flu. "Bird Flu and You" is a poster available in 9 languages with basic information about influenza preparedness. "Weathering the Storm" is a report with information about planning for COOP, including instructions for carrying out "tabletop exercises" with a COOP plan.

In reviewing the report, a number of issues are raised. Clearly, the debate continues about whether H5N1 will actually make the jump to humans, especially since Bird Flu was first discovered in 1961 and human cases didn’t occur until 1997. Of course, we already know that mutations of H5N1 are occurring and that the one or two additional mutations needed to “go human” would not be surprising. Clearly, what is different today than in 1918 when the last pandemic occurred is globalization in general, and as just demonstrated by the traveling TB patient, air travel is such that a virus can be spread from one part of the globe to another, almost in an instant. So the report itself is presented as a guide to keeping your organization operating through a pandemic. It presents ways to ensure a healthier workspace including sanitizing and decontamination procedures, restricted movement, limiting group meetings (e.g., telecommuting and video teleconferencing), and establishing work groups to keep the work of your company flowing. Further, it talks about continuity planning, and specifically, how your company or organization will continue to operate, especially as employees fall sick (or have a family member fall sick).

I bring this up because planning and preparedness continues to be a general issue when it comes to disaster planning (disasters meaning to include terrorist attacks with chemical, biological or radiological weapons). There are so many exigencies that it is impractical or unrealistic to expect that “tabletops” or wargames can provide the road map to appropriate responses. Just yesterday the local emergency preparedness people here (where I live) made public pronouncements that they were ready in the case of another Gulf Coast evacuation like the one during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Anyone who drives the local interstates and experiences the long delays created by road construction has to come to a different and less rosy conclusion. Another point made by the National Defense University report was that a medical response to an outbreak of Pandemic Flu (a variant of the H5N1) will be late since the morphing of the virus itself makes it difficult to develop a vaccine for an unknown. Yesterday, the FDA Finalized Guidances for Pandemic and Seasonal Influenza Vaccines.