WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. administration sent mixed signals on the threat from bird flu on Thursday, with President George W. Bush urging mass production of vaccines while his health secretary played down the risk of a pandemic.
All officials conceded the United States was unprepared for a possible pandemic, and pointed to a number of meetings being held this week to confront the problem.
The White House said Bush would meet U.S. manufacturers on Friday and urge them to come up with ways to mass produce a vaccine for the H5N1 avian influenza virus.
The virus has killed or forced the destruction of tens of millions of birds and infected more than 100 people, killing at least 60 in four Asian nations since late 2003.
The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said an influenza pandemic that could kill millions is certain and may be imminent.
However U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, while urging preparations for a possible outbreak, said the risk was relatively low and a pandemic probably would not happen.
"The probability that we'll have a pandemic flu is unknown," Leavitt said at a Washington health technology conference. "I will tell you from all I hear from scientists and physicians it is relatively low, but it is not zero."
The risk is high enough that the United States should be prepared, he added. And it is not. "Here's the dilemma: we're not prepared as a country. No one is prepared in the world. We're not alone in this," Leavitt said.
"H5N1 may happen, but it probably won't. If it does we need to be better prepared."
Bush, whose standing was hurt by the slow federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina last month, appeared determined to scotch criticism that he is acting too slowly over the flu threat.
The United States is preparing to open an international meeting of top officials about the virus and Congress is debating whether the country is ready to handle an epidemic.
COULD KILL MILLIONS
Experts say the H5N1 strain is mutating steadily and fear it will eventually acquire the changes it needs to easily infect and spread among humans. If it does, they say, it will sweep around the world in months, possibly killing millions.
The World Health Organization has been tracking the virus, taking samples and sending them to labs to be tested for mutations. WHO officials say quick action will be needed if the virus does make the final jump to become a human infection.
Some experts say the virus could theoretically be contained if the first human victims of a new strain are quarantined, treated quickly with antiviral drugs, and others around them vaccinated.
But stocks of antiviral drugs, such as Gilead and Roche's Tamiflu, are limited, and the companies do not have the capacity to make large quantities quickly.
Vaccines take months to formulate and manufacture, and they must match the flu strain fairly precisely to be of any use, so they cannot be made ahead of an epidemic.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush would meet on Friday with the heads of major manufacturing companies and urge them to expand the capacity to mass-produce a vaccine. He said Bush would meet top advisers later on Thursday about the issue.
Leavitt is preparing to visit affected nations next week.
Some members of Congress wanted faster action.
"The administration has failed to prepare adequately for a flu pandemic," Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat said on Wednesday. "The danger of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was ignored until it was too late. We can't make the same mistake with pandemic flu."
Kennedy and other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, introduced legislation to establish a White House "director of pandemic preparedness and response."
At the moment the United States has only enough anti-viral drugs to cover less than one percent of the population, according to some estimates.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Richard Cowan)
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