US President George W Bush has asked Congress to approve a massive $7.1 billion dollar fund to combat a potential influenza pandemic, which would be spent on stockpiling flu vaccines and drugs, shoring up the gaps in seasonal flu vaccine supplies and conducting research into the virus.

The President made his request in a speech at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday. The proposal would include $2.8 billion to be spent on research into more reliable and faster ways to produce vaccines, $1.2 billion to buy 20 million doses of a vaccine against the current (H5N1) strain of avian flu, and $1 billion to buy antiviral medications, i.e. Roche’s Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza (zanamivir) [[10/10/05d]].

$250 million has been earmarked for international monitoring and early warning systems, with the remainder to be used testing poultry and in ensuring the logistics of delivering patients care in the event of a pandemic are up to scratch. Meanwhile, Pres Bush has also asked Congress to remove the threat of litigation and provide product liability protection for companies that supply pandemic flu vaccines – which are still in the experimental stages - in the event they cause adverse reactions.

Earlier this week, he also called for each individual state to spend part of its healthcare budget on flu drugs and vaccines to complement the federal preparedness programme.

President Bush’s proposal comes after his administration has been roundly criticised for its poor response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and has already been criticised for not going far enough by some in the Senate, including Democrat Edward Kennedy. Sen Kennedy was one of the architects of a bill, passed by the Senate last month, which set aside $8 billion for pandemic preparations.

- Meanwhile, Roche is in talks with China’s largest drugmaker, Shanghai Pharmaceutical, to outsource production of Tamiflu. The Swiss company is racing to boost its manufacturing capacity for the product – the drug of choice for pandemic influenza – but has conceded that it will be unable to meet the huge international demand on its own [[21/10/05a]], despite planning a 10-fold increase in capacity by the middle of next year.