White House tests bird flu drill as death toll reaches 70

White House staff have carried out a set of tests to assess its preparedness for what they warn is an inevitable bird flu pandemic.

The four-hour tabletop drill, was say officials, designed to assess the level of federal preparedness for a possible outbreak of bird flu or another deadly virus.

Top Bush aides including cabinet secretaries, military leaders and other top officials took part and according to federal agencies they did quite well; no details have been offered than that.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says the exercise was about being prepared for what will inevitably come.

Other than to say that it was clear that state and local governments would have to assume a leading role, the White House has refused to divulge any details about the exercise and it's results.

White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend says the federal agencies that took part in the exercise did quite well,and though currently there is no evidence that a pandemic flu in the country is imminent they have been warned, and the time to prepare for that pandemic is now.

The tests have happened a day after a Thai boy became the 70th person to die of bird flu.

The virus usually strikes those in close contact with infected fowl or their droppings, and experts fear the deadly virus, known as H5N1, will mutate into a form that can easily infect and pass between people, causing a pandemic.

The HHS has projected that in a pandemic 92 million Americans will become sick and that as many as 2 million will die.

Schools will close, businesses will be disrupted and essential services may break down.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy says the drill was conducted in offices next to the White House and approximately 20 officials took part, including Townsend, Leavitt, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Marine Corps General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. President George W. Bush did not participate.

Townsend says the exercises were just a drill meant to test and to push federal resources to breaking point to ensure that they are prepared, that they identify gaps and then plan to fill them.

She says that was accomplished and the biggest lesson learned was the leading role that state and local governments would have to play in responding to a pandemic.

Townsend says in a pandemic the federal government would play a support role to state and local efforts.

According to Leavitt officials discussed at length how they would deal with limited U.S. supplies of antiviral and vaccines, as the U.S. lacks the capacity to manufacture enough vaccine.

Leavitt also says that the United States needs a surveillance system to detect the virus before it spreads.

President Bush has proposed a $7.1 billion bird flu plan, but Congress has yet to fund it.

The plan calls for building stockpiles of influenza drugs, which would not provide a cure but which might help make the most vulnerable patients less ill.

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