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U.S. Weighs Spending Billions For Stockpile of Anti-Flu Pills

By Gardiner Harris

As concern about a flu pandemic sweeps official Washington, Congress and the Bush administration are considering spending billions to buy the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. But after months of delay, the United States will now have to wait in line to get the pills.

Had the administration placed a large order just a few months ago, Roche, Tamiflu’s maker, could have delivered much of the supply by next year, according to sources close to the negotiations in both government and industry. As the months passed, however, countries placed orders that largely exhausted Roche’s production capacity this year and next.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are complaining that the delay has put Americans in jeopardy. “The administration has just drug its feet through this whole process,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has repeatedly pressed for legislation to buy more courses of Tamiflu. A course includes enough pills for a full treatment.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in an interview that Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, told senators in a closed-door briefing last week that the administration would soon place an order to raise the government’s Tamiflu stockpile to 81 million courses — up from 12 million to 13 million courses expected by the end of 2006. Obama has long been urging the government to buy more Tamiflu.

“Secretary Leavitt admitted that they are currently in negotiations with Roche to try to rapidly build up those stockpiles,” Obama said. “But we’re behind countries like Great Britain, France and Japan, and it’s probably going to cost us a lot more money than it would have to catch up.”

In an interview Tuesday, Leavitt said that the government would buy more Tamiflu although he did not specify how much.

“But it’s not a surrogate for preparation,” he said. “It’s like saying that if we could get everyone in America to wear seat belts, we would solve auto accidents. It’s part of a comprehensive solution.”

Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for Leavitt, said she could not confirm whether the Bush administration had a new goal of buying the 81 million courses.

Leavitt said the Bush administration planned to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic by strengthening both international and domestic disease surveillance programs, buying drugs like Tamiflu and investing in research to develop alternative methods of making flu vaccines.

Preparing the vaccines usually takes nine months and involves the eggs of thousands of chickens. Because chickens themselves could be wiped out in a pandemic, the present system of manufacturing vaccines is highly vulnerable.

Introduced in 1999, Tamiflu for years had disappointing sales and received little attention. But just as Bayer’s antibiotic Cipro became popular in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, Tamiflu has become the drug of choice for those worried about pandemic flu because it is one of the only medicines that has proved it can reduce the duration and severity of the potentially deadly disease if taken within 48 hours of infection.