April 28, 2009 / 12:14 AM / 10 years ago

CORRECTED - UPDATE 4-U.S. lawmakers to examine swine flu response

 (Corrects committee in third paragraph)
 * House, Senate committees to hold hearings this week
 * Lawmakers to look at agency coordination
 * Congressional funding criticized
 (Adds new Senate hearing on steps to protect public health)
 By Susan Heavey
 WASHINGTON, April 27 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers plan to
take a closer look this week at the federal government's
response to the swine flu outbreak that has sickened people in
five states and killed dozens in Mexico.
 At least three hearings are planned, beginning with a U.S.
Senate hearing on Tuesday on steps to protect public health in
the wake of the discovery of the disease in the United States.
 Anthony Fauci, an expert on prevention and treatment of
infectious diseases and director of the National Institute for
Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was among witnesses scheduled
to testify at the "emergency" Senate Appropriations
subcommittee hearing.
 Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Richard
Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, were due to discuss "coordinating the federal
response" to swine flu before the Senate Homeland Security on
 The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Health
Subcommittee slated a hearing for Thursday to discuss the
outbreak "and the next steps for a federal response." The
hearing aims to "ensure that all the agencies responsible for
protecting the public's health are coordinating appropriately
with all due diligence to avert a potential disaster," said
subcommittee chairman Frank Pallone, a Democrat.
 The swine flu virus has so far killed 149 people in Mexico,
but has not caused deaths elsewhere despite spreading to the
United States, Canada and parts of Europe, health officials
have said. Cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas,
Ohio, New York and Texas.
 Efforts to prepare for a possible pandemic have been under
way for years. Some health experts, however, have been critical
of the federal government's work long-term to prepare for
possible pandemics.
 Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit group that
advocates for emergency preparedness, said officials had made
progress but called on Congress to fully fund a $7.1 billion
flu strategy proposed by President George W. Bush.
 The group said $870 million of that sum was included in the
government's fiscal 2008 budget and in the 2009 economic
stimulus bill but removed in both cases before passage.
 "It certainly wouldn't have made a difference in terms of
the response to what's happening today, (but) it will slow down
the level of preparedness that we could have at a later date,"
said Jeff Levi, the group's executive director.
 Democratic Rep. Dave Obey, chairman of the House
Appropriations Committee, said he included $420 million for
pandemic flu preparedness in the stimulus bill but the money
was removed "after a number of senators objected." Obey said he
would request more funds in an upcoming spending measure.
 Republican Sen. Susan Collins and nearly 20 of her
colleagues felt the funding should go through the regular
congressional appropriations process instead of being included
in the stimulus bill, Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said.
 Collins has supported other pandemic spending and "there is
no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu
outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds," Kelley said.
 The federal government has worked to boost domestic
manufacturing capacity for flu vaccines after a flu shot
shortage in 2004, giving five companies a total of $1 billion.
 "We're better prepared today than we were four years ago
... We're in the process of rebuilding the vaccine production
capacity in this county," former U.S. Health Secretary Mike
Leavitt, a Republican who oversaw much of that effort under
Bush, told Reuters on Friday.
 Leavitt added that the federal government has worked with
state and local authorities to develop action plans in case of
a flu outbreak or other widespread health disasters.
 Democratic senators said so far officials at all levels
appear to be coordinating their efforts.
 Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said people need to work
with local officials "so that we can stop the spread. It
appears they are on top of things very quickly and moving on
this very quickly."
 (Additional reporting by Donna Smith and Lisa Richwine;
Editing by Matthew Lewis, Carol Bishopric and Eric Walsh)

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