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Transcript of Tele-News Conference on Preparations for Avian Influenza in the U.S.

June 5, 2006


Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, and Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense Dr. Rajeev Venkayya
New York City 
June 5, 2006

Release No. 0192.06
Office of Communications (202) 720-4623

MR. TREY BOHN: Thank you all for joining us today. My name is Trey Bohn. I'm the radio director in the Office of Media Affairs here at the White House. With us today is HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, and Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense Dr. Rajeev Venkayya.

We hope that this call provides an opportunity to educate and inform the public via NewsTalk Radio about the President's national strategy for pandemic influenza, a strategy which represents a comprehensive approach that not only the U.S. government but all levels of government, the private sector, individual citizens, and our international partners will follow in their efforts to deal with the avian and pandemic influenza.

We hope to answer your questions that I know are on the minds of a lot of your listeners and also be able to address some of the misinformation that might be out there as well. There will be a question and answer session immediately following the brief remarks from our host participants. Just press *1 on your touchtone phone. The operator will ask you to give your name and the outlet you represent. Due to time constraints we ask that each question be limited to one and then a follow-up if necessary.

And while we realize there may be some TV or print reporters on the call, we ask that only radio personnel participate in the Q and A. This call is on the record.

You may begin your recording devices now. And with that, let me turn it over to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Mr. Secretary.

HHS SECRETARY MIKE LEAVITT: Thank you, Trey. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us. Our purpose today, as indicated, is to continue a dialog with news organizations with respect to the threat of a potential pandemic. Our purpose is three-fold. One is, we want very much to have the best available information in your hands as we have it. The second is to continue our discussion about ways in which media will be crucial in a pandemic because of the need that the public will have for information. And the third is to have any discussion that you would be willing to conduct with us, with respect to tools, that would be helpful for you in such a situation.

Let me just begin by reminding us all that pandemics happen. They are a biologic fact of life. They have been with us since the beginning of human history. Literally every century since recorded history began, we have evidence that disease of this sort affects, in a profound way, humanity. You can start in Athens in 430 BC which may be the first known pandemic, and 25 percent of the population of Athens was wiped out very quickly, and it changed not just their health but also the politics and the prosperity of that area. Every century between now and then you can see two or three times during a century the effect of pandemics. We've had 10 pandemics in the last 300 years. We've had three pandemics in the last 100 years.

So the point is, these things happen, and they have a profound impact on the world when they do.

In 1968 and 1957 we had a pandemic that were relatively minor by pandemic terms. Lots of people got sick but not very many people died. But in 1918 we had a pandemic that was both efficient and virulent. That is to say, it was spread fast and it also made people very sick to the point of dying. In fact, about 40 million people across the planet died. And it's that kind of a pandemic that we need to be prepared for. We have no reason to know or to believe that that kind of pandemic will occur, but we know it's possible.

People are concerned today in the scientific community for very good reason. The virus that we are currently watching, the H5N1 virus, often referred to as the avian flu, is spreading across the world on the backs of wild birds. It's in more than 50 countries now, and new countries are added constantly. We are also seeing the virus spread between birds and people in a very limited situation on a nonefficient basis from -- there's the potential that we're seeing it from person to person.

We have not seen sustained person-to-person or efficient person-to-person, which would be the makings of a pandemic. But this virus clearly shows the warning signs that require our attention.

We are also concerned because this particular virus has the genetic and clinical manifestation that the 1918 virus had.

The President has asked us to mobilize the country. We are at the tail-end now of 50 state summits. Many of you will have observed those summits coming to your state. We are now meeting with members of the media like you and others, major news organizations, to talk with them about the way events could or would unfold should there be such a condition, and ways that we could work together to provide the public with the best and most current, reliable information.

So I'm going to ask Mike Johanns, the Secretary of Agriculture, to talk with you some about the animal and bird portion of this problem. And then we will ask Dr. Venkayya if he would make some brief comments about the federal planning effort that's been undertaken. And then we'll be pleased to answer your questions.

AGRICULTURE SECRETARY MIKE JOHANNS: Let me start out with just a few facts relative to avian influenza, and it's good to start out and point out that we are dealing with a pandemic of avian influenza in poultry around the world, although we have not seen high-path avian influenza in the United States in this round.

But there have been millions of birds around the world that have been infected.

The first thing that's important to understand is that there is low-path avian influenza and high-path avian influenza. Low-path avian influenza has been here in the United States for 100 years. The best way of describing it is that birds have a flu season much like humans. And the low-path variety of AI, they pass through that flu season. It isn't fatal to the birds, and they have the sniffles much like a human being would have. But it really doesn't have any real consequence.

It's the high-path avian influenza that we worry about. So that brings me to my second point, which is that we have dealt with high-path avian influenza before in the United States. That is not commonly known. But in 2004 we had a case of high-path avian influenza in Texas. Before that in the 1980s we had high-path avian influenza in Virginia and I believe Pennsylvania. And then some years before that we had high-path avian influenza.

So we at the USDA have dealt with it. We have a plan in place.

That brings me to my third point: what is that plan? If it is a domestic flock, we deal with high-path avian influenza very, very aggressively. We would quarantine that flock. We would test in about a six-mile radius around that flock to see if the high-path avian influenza had spread. We would destroy that flock. We would humanely destroy the birds. We would compensate the owner for that. But we would destroy those birds.

We would then disinfect the area where the birds were, and we would retest to make sure that we have eradicated the high-path avian influenza virus.

The next point that I wanted to make is that in the event you were to see that we were dealing with high-path avian influenza, it does not -- does not, does not -- signal the start of a human pandemic. In our country we have a very, very integrated poultry industry, and we, as I said before, would deal with this very, very aggressively. Currently this virus is not spreading efficiently either from bird to human or human to human.

So the identification of high-path in this country, which has occurred on three other occasions, does not indicate a pandemic has started.

The final point I want to make, and then I'll turn the call over to Dr. Venkayya, the final point is that poultry is safe to eat. Cooking poultry kills viruses, and we have always put out information on how to properly prepare and how to properly cook poultry. When people cook the poultry they are not going to get sick. It kills the virus whether it's high-path or low-path avian influenza.

With that, Dr. Venkayya, I'll turn it over to you.

DR. RAJEEV VENKAYYA: Thank you, Secretary Johanns, and thank you Secretary Leavitt. I just want to briefly recap what the federal government has done and what we plan to do to address the avian and pandemic influenza threat. As Secretary Leavitt has pointed out and Secretary Johanns has reiterated, we are not in a human pandemic now. But we know based on history that we must prepare.

If we do have a pandemic there's no way to predict whether, as Secretary Leavitt pointed out, it would be like a 1968 pandemic in which we lost around 36,000 individuals to the disease here in the United States, or in the 1918 pandemic. I think that's an important point to remember.

When we speak about pandemic preparedness, we always talk about the worst case scenario. And I think many of us think about the worst case scenario being a 1918-like pandemic. But this could be anywhere on a broad spectrum from the 1968 scenario to the 1918 scenario.

Because we think we need to take this seriously, we announced, the President announced in November of last year the national strategy for pandemic influenza which laid out not only the U.S. government's objectives for dealing with the pandemic threat but was also very clear in stating that the federal government can't do this alone. Infection at the end of the day is transmitted from person to person. And so the federal government can do many things and it will do many things to address the pandemic threat. But we rely upon the actions of individuals and families and workplaces and schools and other institutions to undertake pandemic planning efforts as well.

We recently watched the implementation plan for the national strategy. Francis Townsend, the President's Homeland Security advisor, released that on May 3rd. The implementation plan which you can find on, which is our single U.S. government credible source of information from many sources that you can turn to on the avian pandemic threat, when Fran Townsend announced that she basically laid out over 300 actions that the federal government intends to take to support the principles of the strategy. But once again we are very clear that institutions and entities and people outside of government need to take action as well.

So as you look at that implementation plan, which is over 220 pages long, you'll see that throughout the document there are very clear expectations laid out for these nonfederal entities.

Perhaps the most important part of the implantation plan is the specific guidance that we've given to federal departments and agencies on their own planning efforts. We have made it clear to departments that they need to have pandemic plans that cover four principal objectives.

First of all, they need to show how they are going to protect the health and safety of their employees.

Secondly, that that federal department or agency will be able to ensure continuity of operations even in the setting of significant absenteeism, up to 40 percent absenteeism -- in fact, at the height of a pandemic.

Thirdly, the plan needs to lay out how the department or agency is going to support overall federal pandemic response efforts.

And then finally, how is that department or agency going to communicate pandemic messages to its stakeholders, whether they be businesses or individuals and families or international partners and so on.

I go through all that detail with you because we think that many of those principles apply to the kind of business planning, workplace planning, that needs to be undertaken by entities outside of government. In fact, every media outlet on the phone ought to be thinking about its own pandemic planning efforts and putting in place systems that are going to protect the health of their employees as well as to ensure the continuity of operations.

Secretary Leavitt has pointed out that Secretary Leavitt and Secretary Johanns are reaching out to broadcasters to explain what is true and what we don't know about the pandemic threat. The reality is that we all rely upon broadcasters to help us get these messages out, and that's what today's call is about.

With that, let me just turn it back over to Secretary Leavitt and Secretary Johanns.

SEC. LEAVITT: Thank you. I believe we should now go to questions. So Trey, do you want to organize that?

MR. BOHN: Yes, please. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Let's just begin our question and answer session now. If you'd like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and give the operator your name and your outlet. And we'll begin that way. Operator, first question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. One moment please for our first question. As a reminder, to ask a question please press *1 on your phone at this time. (pause) Thank you. Our first question comes from Scott Hennon. And please state your station.

REPORTER: With WDAY. I guess either secretary can take this question. I'm just going to relay, if you don't mind, two common questions that we get on the avian flu discussions from listeners. And one has to do with our vaccination supply -- you know, the amount of supply available should it rise to the pandemic level.

And the other has to do with the cost in preparing for it.

The congressman from Minnesota, represents the Seventh District, Congressman Peterson, who's riled folks up in the heartland here about the fact that we're spending, in his view, too much money on preparing for something that's not even a threat yet, that being the bird flu. And so I get asked the question a lot whether or not the monies being spent, if H5N1 doesn't rise to the level of pandemic flu, is in fact an investment worthy of fighting a future pandemic.

So those two questions, if you don't mind.

SEC. LEAVITT: Thank you. First let me indicate that we have every optimism that a vaccine can be developed for an H5N1 virus. However, the vaccine would need to be developed for the specific virus that ultimately triggered the pandemic. Consequently, the development and manufacturing of the vaccine could not begin until that had been identified. It would likely be six months from the time we identify the virus until we could have produced vaccine for distribution.

The bad news on the vaccine front is that we do not have sufficient capacity domestically to manufacture a course of vaccine sufficient to provide that immune protection for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The president has ordered that we move aggressively to create that capacity, and we are now in the process of making substantial investments as a major part of the $7.1 billion supplemental appropriation that he requested from the Congress.

The need for a vaccine would be present in any pandemic circumstance, so we do not create just the capacity to develop a vaccine for the H5N1 virus, but for any pandemic virus that could come along. We need that capacity. We also need the capacity for the annual flu, which we know happens every year. One of the good pieces of news from this, if there is such a silver lining, is that we can take the annual flu vaccine problem off the table. This is money that's well-spent whether or not the H5N1 virus triggers the next pandemic.

As I indicated earlier, there's no reason to believe a pandemic will not occur at some point in the future, and that if it were to occur in the near term our preparations are not what we hope them to be in the future.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Carol Hiller from Sky Radio Network.

REPORTER: Hello. My question is for Secretary Johanns. It's about the federal government's use of technology, specifically RFID technology, to track individual animals -- where they've been, when, and with which other animals from the time they're born to the supermarket loading dock.

This is being done now with larger animals such as beef cattle, and that's an extension of the old numbered ear tags. What about poultry? Since the family cook does handle raw poultry, will the government be requiring a technological tracking system like RFID on poultry?

SEC. JOHANNS: The system that you're referring to is a voluntary system. And so in response to your question about the government requiring that, we haven't required it for any species at this point. It's a voluntary system.

The other thing I would say in identifying how best to deal with the species, we work with the industry. And individual tracking that might be very workable for a beef animal is not the kind of tracking that you would have for poultry.

The reason for that, at any given time we have about a billion broilers that are somewhere in the United States on feed. They are processed about 45 days after hatching, so you are turning this flock over, this billion-bird flock over, very quickly. And so what's likely to occur in the poultry area is it would be tracking by a farm, it would be tracking by a flock, but individual tracking in my judgment would be very, very difficult with current technology, just simply because of the sheer numbers you're dealing with and how quickly that flock turns over.

So if the industry were to move with its voluntary system, it just appears to me that with today's technology it would be by the flock, by the farm. It would be something different than large animal ID.

REPORTER: I have a follow-up to that. The initial very large use of RFID tracking was done, of course, by Wal-Mart Stores, and they did this by pallets rather than by individual boxes of cereal. So would it be reasonable since flocks stay in the same place until they get to the slaughterhouse, would it be reasonable to do this by palletizing?

SEC. JOHANNS: It could very well be. Again, the industry, they are the best equipped to decide how best to do their tracing and their tracking. And there could be a variety of approaches that accomplish that tracking goal. But the one thing, like I said, under current technology I just can't imagine it would be bird by bird. There's just too many of them.

REPORTER: Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Next question is from RJ McAllister from KWTO Radio.

REPORTER: To anybody involved. Basically we have of course a large poultry industry in Southwest Missouri and the adjacent states. How quickly can you get the information out once it's been determined that the virus is within a flock in our area? How quickly can you get the information, how quickly can you get it to us, how transparent is it going to be to tell people, you know, 'this is an area you need to stay away from'?

SEC. JOHANNS: The process is going to be very transparent. Here is how this is going to work. I think I can walk you through what our testing regimen would be even today.

Let's say that a producer walks into their chicken barn and they see dead birds. And they take samples and those samples are shipped to us. From the time that we receive that information, we can have results back to them or we can have results on the H5N1 in about four hours. That's a screening test. Then we move to a confirmatory testing regimen where we can confirm the N-type in about two to three days.

But here's a very, very important point to make. At that point we will have the information as to whether it's H5N1, but we then need to take the next step and determine whether it's high-path or low-path. Keep in mind, low-path has been here a long time, about 100 years in the United States. Low-path is not something that one would panic over. We would certainly pay attention to it because of the potential that it could go to high-path. But determining whether it's high-path or low-path would then take about 5 to 10 days. This is not an overnight process.

So from start to finish, you are looking at a process that would take about 5 to 10 days to get a final confirmation on whether you're dealing with H5N1 high-path or low-path avian influenza.

Now here's a very important point to make. In a case of high-path avian influenza where we move in and destroy birds, we compensate the owner for that bird that is destroyed. We compensate for the cleanup and all the things that you do, the testing. If that owner is seeing those birds dying, I just have to tell you in all likelihood I think the destruction of that flock is going to proceed. I don't believe that an owner is going to wait for that confirmation if they are seeing pretty wholesale die-out of the flock. They are going to reach the conclusion that they are dealing with a high-path situation.

Low-path typically is not fatal to a bird; high-path is. So if you have a lot of birds dying in a domestic situation, I think you're going to see action starting right there.

REPORTER: Quickly a follow-up. If that would happen, would you send out an advisory on a low-path confirmation?

SEC. JOHANNS: We would send out an advisory when we have an H5N1. That's the point at which -- we do surveillance in testing, and if we get a confirmation on an H5N1 through screening through that four hour screening process, we would put that information out there.

Now again, we would be doing everything we could to work with you to get the word out that H5N1 can be both low-path and high-path. And we would put whatever we could in your hands to try to explain that and what's involved in the confirmatory testing, which would take some additional time.

MR. BOHN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Melanie Smith from USA Radio Network.

REPORTER: Good afternoon. Sec. Leavitt, from the medical side can you boil down the format for alerting hospitals and emergency infrastructure should a human pandemic be detected?

SEC. LEAVITT: The Centers for Disease Control have ongoing processes where they have capacity to notify almost instantly most hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities in the country. And we would use a combination of notification of events, facilities such as that.

REPORTER: A follow-up. Has there been any talk of an alert, a color-coded system, to help the public gauge how serious a pandemic is?

SEC. LEAVITT: The World Health Organization has such a ranking. They track the threat of a pandemic through a series of steps and can elevate that warning system should it warrant.

MR. BOHN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Kristin Espeland from Wyoming Public Radio.

REPORTER: Good afternoon. I'm wondering how much of a concern is antibiotic resistance in connection with bird flu. And if it's a big concern, what's the USDA prepared to do to take care of that? This is, of course, understanding that infected birds would most likely be destroyed, but I'm thinking before that fact.

SEC. JOHANNS: Yes. I can address that. Again getting back to this number of a billion broilers at any given time, and from hatch to processing 45 days, so you're getting this tremendous volume of birds turning over on a very frequent basis. Trying to treat high-path avian influenza through vaccination or a process like that isn't going to be very effective. For one thing, it's just so huge.

The attitude of the USDA in dealing with high-path avian influenza is to simply to eradicate it. Our attitude is, it's not something that we should mess around with. If we identify it or if we see birds dying in volume in a domestic situation, we should quarantine, we should isolate it, we should destroy the birds humanely, and then we should test to make sure we get the high-path avian influenza. We don't want it in our country. We want to do everything we can to aggressively eradicate it.

Low-path avian influenza, again that's much more common. Low-path avian influenza has been around a long time. Individual producers are probably making individual decisions on how they want to treat it or if they want to treat it. So low-path avian influenza typically doesn't have a mortality with birds. Birds pass through that flu season much like we pass through a flu season as humans. They recover and you just don't see any real consequences from the low-path.

REPORTER: A quick follow-up if I may. And what about antibiotic resistance in humans as a result of heavy use of antibiotics in poultry?

SEC. LEAVITT: Dr. Venkayya, would you like to deal with that?

DR. VENKAYYA: Well, I think, I wouldn't expect the issue of antibiotic resistance in humans to change significantly if we're dealing with a poultry outbreak. It's important to point out that while antibiotic resistance is relative in humans during a pandemic because many of the people with the pandemic strain of flu will also have or develop bacterial infections, there is I think unlikely to be a connection between what's happening in the poultry world and what's happening on the human health side in the short duration of the pandemic.

MR. BONN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Gary DiGiuseppe from Arkansas Radio Network.

REPORTER: Thank you. Recently there was a survey, by a group called Synovate, of people's attitudes toward avian flu in the U.S. and Canada. One thing they found was just 15 percent of the public believes the U.S. is well-prepared if the disease mutates into a pandemic. First off, do you folks believe that?

And secondly, if so, is the low level of -- you know what I mean -- the low level of confidence that they have in the government a matter of concern?

SEC. LEAVITT: We are better prepared today than we were yesterday, and we'll be better prepared tomorrow than we are today. It is a continuum of preparedness. There are things that individual families and households and businesses and schools and others can do to add to our nation's preparedness. It's a good idea for households, for example, to have some nonperishable food in storage. A good idea for water and to have healthcare materials, first-aid kits, and prescription drugs. It's a good idea for people to have thought through how they would care for their children if both parents in the family or if one parent in the family needs to work while the children are at school, from schools that have been closed as a result of a pandemic.

All of those items are the same preparedness steps that we would do for any kind of disaster, whether it's a bioterrorism event, a nuclear event, or a hurricane or a tornado. There's an opportunity here to increase the level of general preparedness within our country. The federal government will take our responsibility seriously to produce vaccines and to help develop antiviral stockpiles and to do monitoring all over the world and to coordinate the kind of preparation that's happening at state and local governments.

But any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that their state government or their federal government will be able to take care of every town in the country will be mistaken because that's one of the unique characteristics of a pandemic-- it happens everywhere at once, and it requires preparedness down to the household level in order to optimize our preparedness.

MR. BOHN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Marlin Bohling from Southern Farm Network.

REPORTER: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Glad to visit with you today. Secretary Johanns, obviously if AI would be found in any given area it would be absolutely devastating, not only to that affected farm but also the local and regional economies. Now in such a case, at what point would USDA and other federal agencies declare a disaster in those affected areas? And how could the federal government provide assistance, whether it be financially or otherwise, to help support the economically blighted areas at that point?

SEC. JOHANNS: I can tell you for certain today that in high-path avian influenza cases where we work with a producer and with the state and local community to eradicate that flock, that we compensate that producer for that. I have the ability to literally access funds that are made available to me as Secretary, and I can do that, and it does not take congressional action. I can literally access those funds and deal with that situation.

Your observation is correct. You know, we have been dealing with a beef situation because of BSE, and there's just no doubt that it had an economic impact, really, across the country. Our role at the federal level is to do everything we can to get our borders reopened, to get the market restored, and that's exactly what we would do.

Now we have as you know many, many programs that work in the area of the Rural Development with communities and economic development with communities. And we would certainly do what we could to be helpful there, as we do every year with the program funds that are given to us by Congress.

So those are some of the things that we can do here, and not only be of some assistance, really significant assistance to the producer, but we have the ability, through some of our other programs, to be of assistance to areas that are impacted.

REPORTER: If I could follow up for a just a second, are you talking about modeling it much as in the way you would, maybe, perform hurricane disaster assistance? And if so, who would get priority in that funding?

SEC. JOHANNS: Now that's just not a -- it's just not the same approach. It really isn't. With a hurricane disaster, you have a very, very targeted situation. You can go to a cotton crop and see that it's been wiped out and flooded, and you can make an assessment, and you can literally reach out to an area that has that same problem. This is quite a different phenomena because you're likely to have a producer or a group of producers that suffer that kind of targeted loss.

The rest of the loss in the country -- and I do believe you'd be dealing with trade issues here, so you could have a country-wide impact -- is more dispersed, if you will. And so you really are relying on your more general programs to deal with that.

MR. BOHN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: At this time I'm showing we have no further questions.

SEC. LEAVITT: Trey, thank you for organizing this. And it sounds as though we're prepared to terminate the call.

MR. BOHN: Thank you, sir.

SEC. JOHANNS: Thank you, everyone.

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