Bird Flu Alarm

2005-12-09-Bird flu could cost U.S. $625 billion

Understanding Avian Influenza

2005-12-09-Bird flu could cost U.S. $625 billion

By Tony Pugh

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON ? A severe bird-flu outbreak would cost the U.S. economy $625 billion ? about 5 percent of the gross domestic product ? as employers struggled with absenteeism, lost production and a sharp decline in consumer spending, a new government report has found.

The economic impact, driven in part by fear and confusion, would be equivalent to a recession, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. The estimates are based on a pandemic that would sicken 90 million people in the United States and kill about 2 million.

The findings are the government's first attempt at a detailed look at the cost of what could be the most devastating public-health threat in nearly a century. The analysis, while not definitive, provides a picture in dollars of why an influenza pandemic would present a health crisis and a threat to national security and the economy.

The CBO report estimates 30 percent of the U.S. population would become ill in a three-month outbreak, and about one-third of the U.S. work force would miss three weeks of work.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who requested the report, told a National Press Club gathering Thursday the findings were "a grim prognosis" for a nation struggling to regain its economic footing.

Avian flu has been centered mainly in Southeast Asia but is moving westward through migratory birds. The disease is transmitted from animal to animal, mostly among birds. Humans are contracting the highly lethal disease after close contact with infected animals.

If the virus, known as H5N1, mutates into a form that passes easily from person to person, the world would be hit with a catastrophic pandemic because virtually no one would have immunity to the new virus.

To date, 133 people in five Asian countries have contracted the virus and 68 have died, according to the World Health Organization.

In testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill, Dr. Michael Osterholm told the House International Relations Committee a U.S. flu pandemic would affect the world. "The global economy will literally shut down," said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "Health-care systems will be overwhelmed and, frankly, panic will reign."

The CBO report estimates that a mild outbreak would infect 75 million people, kill 100,000 and cost the economy $160 billion, about 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services.

The Bush administration has asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for a pandemic. Part of it would go to increase the U.S. stockpile of anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu from 2.3 million full treatments to 81 million.

President Bush also wants $1.2 billion to purchase 20 million full treatments of an experimental H5N1 vaccine and $2.8 billion for research into a cell-based flu vaccine that would allow U.S. manufacturers to produce enough for the entire U.S. population within six months of a flu outbreak.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said the CBO report shows "it is time for Congress to act on the president's request so we can immediately begin to implement our plans to prevent and contain a pandemic."

Roche Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Tamiflu, is in discussions with several drug companies to increase production of Tamiflu as demand increases worldwide, Roche spokesman Terry Hurley said.

Understanding Avian Influenza