Transcript of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt - Regarding Federal Preparedness for Avian Flu March 20, 2006 | USDA Newsroom
SEC. MIKE JOHANNS: Well, good afternoon, everyone. I'll go ahead and get us started here. I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to Secretaries Norton and to Leavitt for joining me today to talk about avian influenza or "bird flu" as it is commonly referred to. We are prepared today to discuss our expectations, our preparedness, and what we are doing to enhance our early warning system.
We wanted to address you together because we have been planning together, and we each have an important role to play in our country's preparedness.
With the aggressive spread of bird flu overseas, we believe it is important for us to update the American people on our efforts to prepare and to protect the United States.
First I'd like to discuss just for a moment the role of the media as we talk about the likelihood of a detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in the United States. Reporters covering the story of course have enormous power, the power to choose between words that would cause panic or words that inspire very calm preparations.
With that power, of course, comes responsibility. Never before has it been more important for you to help the American people understand a very complex but vitally important animal health and public health issue.
Clear and comprehensive reporting of this story will make the difference between informing and alarming the public. We stand before you today confident that there is no need to alarm the public, but there is a need to inform the public.
The American people deserve the facts. They need accurate information about where the threat exists and where it does not exist. The fact is that a detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in birds in the United States would not constitute a reason for panic. That's an important message that we leave with you today.
The nation depends on you to tell the story with the highest possible levels of accuracy and precision.
I want to thank all of the reporters covering this story in advance for taking very seriously the tremendous responsibility that you have. Your reporting much more than our words will determine whether we are successful in preparing the public without causing panic.
How can we be so confident there is no need for panic? We'll answer that question today and explain how we are strengthening our early warning system.
We are closely monitoring the rapid spread of the H5N1 virus overseas, and we now believe it is likely that we will detect it within our borders in the United States. It is critically important for the American public to understand that a detection of this virus in birds does not signal the start of a pandemic among people.
We feel very strongly about delivering that message now to the American people to prevent unnecessary panic if and when H5N1 virus is detected. Allow me to repeat that if I could. A detection of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in birds does not signal the start of a human pandemic. The rapid spread of the virus does signal that the time is now to expand our early warning system, and that's what we are doing together.
In recent weeks we have discussed our plan to expand the monitoring and testing of migratory birds. I'm pleased to report that earlier today the plan was finalized, clearing the way for its implementation.
For those of you who might not know, I'll take just a moment to explain our departments' respective roles. The Department of the Interior monitors wild bird populations through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. USDA also has a connection to wild birds through our Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as well as our Agricultural Research Service.
The Department of Health and Human Services is a part of this effort because we all recognize a line exists between protecting animal health and protecting human health. We work together. If I were to boil it down to its most simple terms, I would say that Interior is heavily involved with wild birds. USDA's main focus is domestic flocks and HHS zeros in on human health.
So to provide an overview of the wild bird surveillance plan, it is my pleasure to introduce Secretary Gale Norton of the Department of Interior. Gale?
SEC. GALE NORTON: Good afternoon. First I want to reiterate what Secretary Johanns said. We are working together to expand our early warning system, but the arrival of the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in birds is an eventuality that should be viewed in context.
It is increasingly likely that we will detect the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within the U.S. borders possibly as early as this year. The Department of the Interior has been detecting avian influenza strains in wildlife for many years. We know that there are many strains of bird flu routinely circulating in migratory birds. Most of those viruses are at the low pathogenic variety that pose minimal risk to poultry and none to people.
However, when a virus mutates or mixes with another avian influenza virus it occasionally can become highly pathogenic, causing higher fatality rates in birds. Highly pathogenic avian influenzas have been detected in domestic poultry three times in this country, most recently in 2004 when the outbreak was quickly confined to a single flock.
No wild bird infections were reported in connection with the 2004 outbreak. There are a number of ways that avian influenza virus can be carried from one place to another -- by people, by commercial birds, by smuggled wildlife, by equipment, and by wild migratory birds. And they may also play a role in the virus transmission.
We are uncertain of the extent of wild birds' role in the spread of the current lethal virus, but we do know that wild birds are often victims of the virus. In Europe unusual deaths of swans and other wild birds were an early indication of the arrival of the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1.
The wild migratory birds can provide both a possible pathway through which highly pathogenic H5N1 strain can be brought to North America and an indicator of its arrival here. Therefore the nation needs a robust system to monitor and detect the virus in wild birds as part of an effective early warning system.
The Interagency Strategic Plan we are unveiling today does that by providing a unified national framework of survey priorities, methods, and data management. In developing this plan the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture worked with the Department of Health and Human Services, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and representatives of other state wildlife, animal health, and public health agencies.
Effective early warning will involve the coordinated work of many agencies and cooperators across the country, especially federal and state wildlife agencies.
Migratory birds carry the highly pathogenic H5N1 or a similarly dangerous virus to the United States. It's most likely to arrive first via the Pacific Islands or Alaska. I'd like to take a moment to describe this map of migratory bird flyways.
As we see here, there are species of migratory birds that spend the wintertime in Asia and in these areas, and then in the spring they travel to Alaska and nest in that area. So this is a pathway for birds that is flown by a number of species.
We also see a pathway that comes from Europe and goes into North America through Canada. There are many, many fewer birds that fly on the Europe route, and so it is much more likely that birds reaching the United States would be coming through this route from Asia.
Birds would nest in the spring and summer in Alaska and would mingle with birds that might be coming from the United States through our pathways and flyways here.
And so it is during that mixing that we would most likely see birds that would then go into the Lower 48 United States.
The early detection plan prioritizes our efforts to focus on Alaska, elsewhere in the Pacific flyways, and in the Pacific Islands. We are also working and we also, as you can see from this map, will be sampling birds throughout Alaska in a number of locations. And those are chosen in part to coincide with the places that are used by nesting by those species that are most likely also found in Asia.
We are working with wildlife leaders in the Central flyway, the Mississippi flyway, and the Atlantic flyway of the Lower 48.
These areas will have plans in place, and their activities might be increased depending on the circumstances.
The Interagency Strategic Plan establishes a comprehensive framework for early detection of the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 in wild birds. The plan uses five major strategies-- testing wild birds that are sick or have died; sample testing of live wild birds; sample testing of hunter-killed birds; monitoring and testing of sentinel animals; and testing of environmental samples.
Interior and its partners including state Fish and Game agencies routinely investigate when groups of wild birds become sick or die. This happens quite frequently. There are many instances every year when groups of birds become sick or die for a variety of different causes. The systematic investigation of sick or dead wild birds offers the highest and earliest probability of detecting the high path H5N1 strain. The strategy expands existing programs conducted by Interior and its partners to investigate disease outbreaks.
Testing of live, apparently healthy, wild birds will target those species that represent the highest risk of being exposed to or infected with high pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. We would first focus on the species that migrate to Alaska from Asia. This strategy uses capture and sampling to detect the presence of the virus. Birds are not killed in this process. A sample is taken by swabbing. The strategy also capitalizes on current research activities of Interior, USDA, and other partners.
To supplement the samples from live wild birds, we will do targeted sampling of hunter- killed birds at check stations operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service and state natural resource agencies. Samples from these species will be collected at hunter check stations in Alaska and the Lower 48 during hunting seasons in areas where these birds gather during migration or over-wintering.
Samples will also be collected from wild birds taken by Alaska natives during the spring subsistence hunt. Monitoring and testing of sentinel animals includes poultry flocks reared in backyards. They can be monitored for diseases of interest in nearby commercial poultry operators. Also waterfowl can be placed in wetland environments where they can commingle with wild birds. The ducks are then monitored and tested for avian influenza viruses.
Environmental sampling monitors water and/or fecal samples from waterfowl habitat. They can provide evidence of avian influenza type circulating in wild bird habitats, specific subtypes, and the levels of pathogenicity.
Using these strategies and techniques, field specialists and wildlife biologists from several federal and state agencies, universities, and nongovernmental organizations plan to collect between 75,000 and 100,000 samples from live and dead wild birds in 2006.
Coordinated collaborative efforts are critically important to effectively carrying out this work.
The USGS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA are now working with the four migratory bird Flyway Councils to translate the interagency strategic plan into flyway and state-specific sampling plans. These flyway plans and state plans will identify what bird species or populations should be targeted, what survey methods would be most appropriate to employ, and what geographic areas should be surveyed. This will enable us to focus the collective efforts of federal, state, and other cooperators in the most effective manner.
Testing of all the collected samples will be carried out by a number of federal, state, and university veterinary laboratories that are licensed to test for this virus. Testing will follow a strict protocol to ensure that timely, accurate, and consistent information is disseminated to appropriate officials and to the public.
Under federal laboratory testing programs, initial tests may indicate the presence of a strain of avian influenza of concern that these initial tests are considered presumptive, not definitive. Identical samples from the presumptive tests are sent to the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for additional testing and official confirmation.
A presumptive test indicates H5N1. These results will be shared with the appropriate federal, state, and local officials and the public. Each government agency can initiate its appropriate response based on the circumstances in the particular situations. In many cases this response may simply be further monitoring.
We anticipate that presumptive H5N1 results may be announced 20 to 100 times this year. Those initial tests do not tell us whether it is highly pathogenic or whether it is of the low pathogen variety. We will not know that information until tests are completed that take another five to ten days to perform.
During this wait, the press and the public will need to realize two things-- first, that this is a disease of birds and not humans at this point; finding a bird with the disease does not signal a pandemic.
It is quite possible that we could have dozens of H5N1 reports with none turning out to be the highly pathogenic variety. These low pathogenic viruses do not even cause particular problems for birds and are not relevant to human influenza concerns. If the Ames Lab confirms the occurrence of a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, those initial response actions will either be sustained, expanded, or modified—again, in cooperation with affected federal, state and local officials.
We must avoid handling preliminary information in a way that would cause undue concern, while striving for timely, transparent results getting into the hands of responsible people, officials, and the public.
If at some future point the H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza is detected in wild migratory birds in North America, we will also consult with state Fish and Wildlife agency partners, the agricultural health community, and the public health community to determine whether and how that might affect the sport hunting of waterfowl.
How we respond will be determined by the facts of the particular situation. That being said, I want to emphasize the current scientific consensus that the primary risk to human health is not from human interaction with wild birds. Experts currently believe that limiting opportunities for domestic poultry to come in contact with wild birds is a more effective disease management strategy in closing waterfowl seasons or otherwise restricting human contact with wild birds.
Hunters should always practice common sense sanitary practices in handling, cleaning, and preparing wild fowl. Cooking kills the virus. USGS, National Wildlife Health Center issued guidelines for proper handling of wild birds to provide good common-sense guidance. Thus far there have been no cases reported of humans contacting the disease from contact with wild birds.
It's also important to note that the World Health Organization and Animal Health authorities throughout the world do not currently believe that culling wild birds is an effective means to control avian influenza. Interior is working with its state and federal partners to coordinate contingency plans so that we can rapidly gather the relevant facts, test the situation with the appropriate parties, and reach a decision on these issues should a disease outbreak occur in North America.
In conclusion, let me return to Secretary Johanns' message. Discovery of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in migratory birds in Alaska or in other parts of North America will not be a reason for panic. It will not signal the beginnings of a pandemic. Based on the spread of this virus in Asia, Europe and into Africa we expect it to show up in North America at some point possibly this year.
The Interagency Surveillance Strategy is designed to help us find the disease as soon as possible after it enters North America and then take the appropriate steps to protect the public health. Thank you.
SEC. JOHANNS: Thank you, Gale. I do want to, if I might, acknowledge your recent announcement that you'll be leaving your Department. And I wanted to take this moment to just say thank you for your service to our country. We are especially grateful for Gale's leadership in the assistance in the development of this plan and we're very proud at USDA to be a partner with the Department of Interior in this effort.
We have actually been testing wild migratory birds for more than 15 years at the USDA. That dates back to 1998 [not 1988], and we've been doing that in partnership with the universities. In fact, we've tested more than 12,000 migratory birds in the Alaska Flyway and nearly 4,000 in the Atlantic Flyway.
As our researchers can tell you, we frequently find the common strains of avian influenza in the birds we test, especially in the wild bird populations, which brings us to a very important point. There are two very different types of avian influenza.
To understand the potential threat related to an outbreak of AI it is important to know that the two types are really very different from each other. Low path AI is as common as the human flu, and sometimes it isn't even noticeable in birds. Now high path strains of AI like H5N1 circulating in Asia and Europe are easily transmitted between birds and typically they are fatal to birds.
This distinction must be understood because there is also a low path variety of H5N1.
So we could find a bird with H5N1 and it could be a harmless strain of the virus. This low path H5N1 has been detected both in Canada and in the United States, and it's referred to as the North American H5N1. Again, the low path North American H5N1 is not a cause for broad concern.
There's another important distinction to make. A detection of the more dangerous high path H5N1 in wild birds would not mean that commercial poultry-- that is, birds raised for consumption -- would be affected. The U.S. poultry industry is much better positioned to deal with bird flu than many countries currently affected by the high path H5N1 virus.
There are two reasons why I can confidently make this statement. One, our industry is very consolidated. In many of the countries struggling with the virus, chickens are commonly raised in yards and even inside houses. In the United States, chickens, turkeys, and eggs produced for human consumption are typically raised in very controlled environments.
Secondly, biosecurity practices have been a part of the business of raising poultry in the United States for decades, literally decades. The vast majority of our commercial poultry producers raise their chickens and turkeys in covered structures with controlled access.
Having said that, if the virus did reach a commercial poultry flock, we do have experience dealing with it, even the more dangerous strains of it. Some people are surprised to learn that we have responded to high path AI three times in domestic poultry in the United States-- during the 1920s, the 1980s and again just two years ago. In the most recent case, USDA teamed up with state experts and confined the virus to one flock.
Another reason the United States is well positioned in terms of response capabilities is the cooperation that we have with the industry. U.S. poultry producers understand the importance of wiping out this virus the moment that it is detected. This is a $29 billion industry in the U.S. and our producers are as eager as we are to protect the safety of our poultry.
An important point. Producers know they will be compensated for destroyed birds. Our producers have demonstrated that they will call us at the first sign of sick birds knowing that with high path strains of bird flu we reimburse them for the birds that we destroy.
So unlike what we have seen in some countries where producers are reluctant to report the virus because of economic loss, our producers know their loss will be covered if they call us. If the virus does reach a commercial flock, we would quickly take action to eliminate the virus following a very, very detailed response plan.
If I were to reduce our response to a few simple steps they would be this. One, we would immediately establish a quarantine area around the infected birds and restrict movement into and out of that area to prevent the further spread of the virus.
Two, we would humanely destroy the birds and disinfect the area.
Three, we would step up testing throughout the region to ensure that the virus does not spread.
And fourth, the quarantine would be lifted only when tests confirm that the area is free of the virus.
A close relationship with state and local experts ensures that we can rapidly dispatch experts to the scene. We have 400 USDA veterinarians in a network of nearly 3,000 animal health workers across the country who are prepared to respond if needed. We have the capability to run as many as 18,000 tests per day, the combined capacity of our Ames, Iowa, lab with an established network of 39 laboratories across the United States. We are also prepared to protect healthy birds outside the quarantine area with 40 million bird vaccines stockpiled and additional 70 million in production.
As we talk about preparing for the high path H5N1 to be detected here, I don't want anyone to assume that we are backing away from our efforts overseas. In fact we're stepping up assistance to countries that have been impacted by the virus. We have sent our scientists to the scene of outbreaks in countries to lend their expertise.
They are assisting with everything from education to eradication. We are working as a part of an international team delivering assistance to those countries in hopes of limiting the spread.
Here at home we also protect our borders. We have talked about the potential for wild birds to bring high path H5N1 to the U.S., but there are other possible sources of introduction, and we have protections in place to address them. We prohibit the importation of poultry from countries where the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus has been detected in the commercial poultry.
USDA quarantines and tests all live birds imported from other countries other than Canada, except returning U.S. origin pet birds, which are examined and then allowed to undergo home quarantine.
We also have a smuggling interdiction team that works with the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection to prevent illegal entry of birds from other countries.
If you leave here today remembering nothing else that I tell you, I hope you'll remember two points. One, a detection of the high path H5N1 virus does not signal the start of a pandemic. The virus is not easily transmitted person to person. People who have become ill in other countries have had direct contact with infected birds.
Two, properly prepared poultry is safe to eat. A detection of H5N1 should not cause a loss of confidence in the safety of poultry. It is highly unlikely that an infected bird would enter the food supply, but even if it did proper cooking kills the AI virus just as it does other viruses and bacteria, so there's no reason to be concerned about eating chicken or turkey if you've properly prepared it. As always, we have guidelines on our website.
With that, I'd like to introduce someone who has really worked tirelessly to encourage preparedness, Secretary Mike Leavitt has traveled the country conducting state summits, always careful to point out that this virus might or might not evolve into a form that can be passed from person to person.
I recently joined him at a summit; I was very impressed. So I'm pleased to invite to the podium the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt.
SEC. MIKE LEAVITT: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. May I just say much has been said already about the potential of H5N1 in birds. Our theme today I think could well be expressed in two words, planning and in perspective.
At this point if you are a bird it's a pandemic. If you're a human being, it's not. Simple as that.
However, we are not excused from concern. While there's no evidence that the virus is passing from person to person, we do see this virus circulating in birds all over the world. It is a highly lethal virus when it gets into human beings, and there is no human immunity. The virus is constantly changing, like other viruses. We know that it can affect people who come in close contact with birds or who handle infected poultry. It has killed thus far 98 people in the world, and it has a mortality rate of about 50 percent.
Scientists are rightly concerned that this H5N1 virus looks very similar genetically to the virus of the Spanish Flu of 1918, not just genetically but it presents itself clinically in a way that's very similar to that virus.
The truth is, pandemics happen. We have had ten pandemics in the last 300 years. We have had three pandemics in the last 100 years. That's the reason that the President has called on the nation to prepare. He's laid out the national strategy that's been discussed already, and he has asked Congress for $7.1 billion emergency supplemental appropriation, half of which has been granted, and we look forward to discussions in Congress about the next half.
My colleagues have mentioned the precautions that are being taken for birds and wild birds and domestic flocks. I would like also to mention to you the five major areas of preparation that we have with respect to humans. The first is monitoring the disease, developing vaccines, stockpiling countermeasures, coordinating state and local preparedness, and working on ways to talk about this effectively to give people a sense of perspective and planning.
First let me mention the disease monitoring. Think of the world if you will as a vast forest that is susceptible to fire. A spark if allowed to burn will emerge as an uncontainable fire. That's a pandemic. If we are there when the spark happens, it can be squelched. But if allowed to burn for a time it begins to spread uncontrollably.
So we are building a network of monitoring all over the world. We're working to cooperate with nations in vigilance so that we can determine when and if this virus should spread.
Second objective I mentioned is vaccines. We need vaccines. I say vaccines in the plural because the H5N1 virus is in fact evolving. Our scientists are working to develop vaccines. In addition to vaccines, we'll obviously need a way to manufacture them and distribute them. Our objective is to have the capacity to generate 300 million courses of a vaccine within a period of six months after the virus has been isolated. We do not have that capacity today. We anticipate within three to five years we will.
The third objective is stockpiling antiviral medications. This month earlier we announced contracts totaling $275 million for additional purchases of antivirals such as Tamiflu. Tamiflu is one antiviral medicine that in some situations has a positive impact after a person becomes ill. We are on track to meet our nation's goal of having 25 percent of our population or Tamiflu for up to that number. We will reach 26 million courses by the end of 2006.
In addition, we're stockpiling other assets such as masks and ventilators and so forth.
A pandemic involves much more than just public health officials. This is a matter that requires the attention of elected political leaders, of employers, of school leaders, of healthcare leaders, of the media -- all need to be engaged and actively involved.
Local preparedness is the foundation of pandemic readiness. Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will at the last moment be able to come to the rescue will be tragically wrong, not because the federal government lacks will, not because we lack wallet, but because there is no way in which 5,000 different communities can be responded to simultaneously, which is a unique characteristic of a human pandemic.
We have begun to hold pandemic planning summits. We have held them in half of the states, and in the next two months we will hold the balance. We are also creating checklists. Checklists have been issued thus far for businesses, for state and local governments, for schools, for health organizations, for faith organizations, for community organizations, for individuals and for families. They can be found on pandemicflu.gov, which is a comprehensive website for the U.S. government.
Now it has been mentioned before, but let me emphasize it -- preparedness starts with good communication. We must learn to speak about this in ways that will inform but not
We need to speak openly and candidly and honestly about this. One of the dilemmas of dealing with a pandemic is: anything that's said before a pandemic happens seems alarmist. Anything we have done after it starts seems inadequate. Therefor, talking about it early, preparing, but keeping perspective is the important objective.
Preparation is a continuum; every day we need to get better prepared. We're better prepared today than we were a day ago; and we'll be better prepared tomorrow than we are today. A continuum of preparation. We must learn to speak about this in ways that will inform but not inflame. In a fashion that inspires us to prepare not to panic.
SEC. JOHANNS: With that, we would be happy to take your questions. If I could just offer a few thoughts of instruction, I would ask that you step to one of the microphones. There's one in each aisle. If you do have a question you might indicate who you want the question directed to.
I should mention also that we will first answer any questions posed by those joining us physically here in the auditorium. Then we'll move to the USDA Broadcast Center to respond to questions from reporters that have joined us on the telephone. So we'll take questions here, and then after a short delay just to change locations we will follow that up with a second question and answer period for those who are on the telephone.
So with that, the first question.
REPORTER: Good afternoon. I'm Carl Roshell, Global National. And a Canadian question, if you will, since many of these birds either fly through Canada coming south or come from Canada, is the U.S. talking with Canada about the bird flu, the potential bird flu epidemic? And what sort of discussions have you had? What sort of plans are you working out with the Canadians?
Probably to Secretary Norton, but perhaps all three of you would chip in.
SEC. NORTON: Yes, we are talking with them. They would obviously be the ones who would have the first monitoring responsibility for any birds that might be coming from Europe through the usual pathways there. We would be working with them, and we do routinely coordinate with them on migratory birds issues and would continue to do so. We will be coordinating with them as we further move through our planning effort as well as coordinating with them on our monitoring as we find results.
REPORTER: Their surveillance plan does start about a month later than the U.S. plan. Does that concern you at all?
SEC. NORTON: They routinely do monitoring as we do. They may not be stepping things up quite as quickly. All of these decisions are made on a scientific basis, depending on particular species of birds and when they do their ordinary migrations.
REPORTER: But you're satisfied with the Canadian plans?
SEC. NORTON: To the extent that I know about it, they have been very responsible partners in working with us on so many migratory bird issues. And we anticipate continuing that working relationship.
REPORTER: Thank you.
REPORTER: Hi. I'm Jeff Young. I work for an NPR program called "Living On Earth." You've all stressed the importance of openly and candidly communicating as this progresses. But of course the administration does not have the best reputation when it comes to openly and candidly communicating science, so in other matters--for example climate change and ignoring the advice of science Advisory Committees on clean air issues for example. There's a long list I'm sure you're aware of. Are you concerned at all that you have undermined public trust in your ability to openly and candidly communicate science?
SEC. JOHANNS: I'll offer a thought on that. No, I am not. I appreciate your statement there, but I will tell you that in my experience in working with consumers, and we deal with food health issues on an ongoing basis, I find consumers rely upon our information. They access our information. They make buying decisions based upon the information we have out there.
I can tell you and I think I speak for all of the departments here, when it comes to human health issues they are at the forefront of what we do. In terms of information we put out, I think you can see in how we've handled other issues that we are very transparent. Oftentimes I'll receive information on testing, and 10 minutes later it will be out there in the media's hands with our explanation as to what the testing indicated.
So again, I appreciate your statement. You've had an opportunity here to make it, but quite honestly I think at the USDA we handle that much differently than what your statement would indicate.
SEC. LEAVITT: I would also mention that we have been working internationally with nations all over the world to create a network of transparency and cooperation. Over 90 countries have responded to the President's call to work on an international basis in developing the network of monitoring that I've spoken of earlier. It's clear that working with the World Health Organization that's an essential part of being able to identify at the earliest possible moment when such an event would occur.
SEC. NORTON: From the Interior perspective, we are working very closely with scientists who are in state organizations as well as federal organizations. We will be meeting with biologists and Fish and Wildlife Agency officials from all of the states in the coming week and anticipate that they will be very actively involved in our process as we go along.
SEC. JOHANNS: Next question.
REPORTER: Yes. I'm Sally Schuff. I'm with Feedstuffs. My question is for Secretary Johanns. In the event of a high path H5N1 outbreak in the United States, do we have a vaccination plan for poultry? And if so, do we have a stockpile of vaccines readily available to answer that need?
SEC. JOHANNS: If we experience a case of high path H5N1 in the United States, you will see us handle it very aggressively. We believe that the best approach is to deal with--that instant--with the four steps that I outlined. We will cordon off the area, movements in and out will be prohibited and monitored. The other thing we will do is, we will destroy the poultry. We will then test in that area to make sure that we've gotten rid of the virus and we will disinfect.
There are instances where we might use the vaccine to, in effect, to build a rim around an infected area, but our preference is to be much more aggressive and just simply eradicate the birds, eliminate the virus, do the disinfectant, and literally end it right there.
So we believe that's a much more aggressive and much more direct way of dealing with the virus.
REPORTER: This can be directed to Secretary Leavitt. The most recent disaster that hit this country that required the coordination of state, local and federal governments was Hurricane Katrina. And can we expect if a pandemic should hit this country, can we expect the response to be similar to that of Katrina or a better response?
SEC. LEAVITT: Well, let me describe some of the lessons that I believe were learned from Katrina about pandemics. The first is that what happens before a disaster is a prominent importance in being able to assure that damage is minimized.
The second is, you have to think about the unthinkable, because often it occurs.
The third lesson I would point to is, how much different a pandemic is from any other natural disaster.
nI Katrina we saw major portions of Louisiana, big pieces of Mississippi and some of Alabama, but at least it was constrained to those three states.
I walked through medical shelter after medical shelter for weeks after and saw people who came from all over America to help them. That could not and would not happen in a pandemic. Why? Because they would be in their homes either handling the same dilemma or preparing to handle the same dilemma. In other words, a pandemic is different than anything we have dealt with before in terms of natural disasters. And consequently local preparedness will be of paramount importance. The national government clearly has a role. I laid them out-- vaccines, antivirals, working to develop stockpiles, and assisting state and local governments.
We're working through a whole series of actions that we've at least highlighted today: preparation.
Now I will tell you straight out, no one in the world is well prepared for a pandemic. We're better prepared now than we were before, and we'll be better prepared in the future than we are now. But it's a continuum of preparation.
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, Bill Tomson with Dow Jones. Secretary Johanns, officials at USDA have been saying for quite some time that the best way to head this disease off is to fight it at its source. Is it too late to fight at its source, where it has become endemic in countries such as Asia, especially with much of the lion's share of the funding has gone to the human side rather than the poultry side?
SEC. JOHANNS: Well, we're doing all of what you suggest. As you know we're partnering with foreign groups. FAO would be a good example. If we're asked for assistance we go to where the virus has been found, we assist countries that are seeking our help, and we reach out to them.
The one thing about this virus though that we have to be mindful of, and it's what we spoke about today, this virus can be spread by migratory birds. And it's like I said a few weeks ago, there's none of us that can build a cage around the United States. These migratory birds have been flying this pathway for a long time, and they're going to continue to do that.
So we have to be prepared to deal with the virus here. We're preparing like it's going to be here. We can have a great debate about whether it will or it won't, but quite honestly that's a debate that I don't believe would be helpful at this point. I think we just have to be prepared.
We have dealt with it in the past. As you know it has been in the United States on three occasions. We do have experience with it.
So we're doing what you're suggesting, but we're also recognizing that we have to be prepared here too.
REPORTER: But is it too late to fight H5N1 there so we don't have to fight it here?
SEC. JOHANNS: Well there at the moment is in a lot of countries. Bill, that's the issue. And there at the moment is wherever migratory birds may fly that might have H5N1. I rest my case. I think we need to be prepared here.
REPORTER: Philip Brasher with the Des Moines Register. A couple of questions. I understood you said you could contract as many as 20 to 100 presumptive positives this year. If that's correct do you plan to release those, news about those, prior to the confirmatory tests? If you could go over what your procedure's going to be on that?
Number two, I wondered if you, for Secretary Johanns, if you plan any, do you have any authority to plan any restrictions on flocks that have access to the outdoors or outdoors? You think, is that something that you've given any consideration to?
SEC. NORTON: Our current plan is to release that information at the point we do get presumptive results that indicate H5N1. At that point we had to make some careful decisions about the right point to release information. That allows people to begin preparation because at that point we would not know whether it is high path or low path. We want to make it clear to people that just by saying that does not indicate that we have the strain of virus that is causing so much concern in Asia at this time.
So we want to place in context what release of that information would mean. And then we would work with people as we get additional confirmation of that and additional characterization of the disease.
SEC. JOHANNS: In reference to your question to me, I can tell you today there is nothing under consideration that would indicate that we would somehow bring all the poultry in that may be outside.
Another opportunity though to reinforce a point that I made in my comments, and that is keep in mind that the arrival of H5N1 in migratory birds in the United States doesn't necessarily mean that it will get in the domestic flock. It's a pretty integrated industry here. The majority of the birds that we raise here in the United States are in very large operations that are covered and they're housed in that operation. There are some exceptions to that. We still have some flocks, kind of the back yard variety if you will, but nothing like what you see in other countries.
So today that idea is not under consideration.
REPORTER: Hi. Libby Quaid with AP. Question for Secretary Johanns. Would you please talk about the special concerns, following up on your last answer facing the organic natural cage-free industry and what specifically is being done to prepare that segment of the industry?
SEC. JOHANNS: They are an excellent industry as you know, Libby. They are very mindful of what we're dealing with, and they just do an outstanding job with their poultry. The arrival of H5N1 in migratory birds, again, does not indicate that those birds would be infected or anything like that. So we work with them on an ongoing basis. Our relationship with the industry is excellent, and they'll make the preparations that they feel are necessary.
The other thing I would say, compared to our very large poultry enterprises in many states in the United States, these tend to be on the smaller side. And again the biosecurity that they put in place really is-- they do a good job.
REPORTER: Following up on that, do they have the capability to bring the birds inside if they need to?
SEC. JOHANNS: You know, you have a lot of birds outside. I'm not sure how you would even catch them. You know, anybody who grew up on a farm if you think about catching all those birds that in itself would be a pretty gigantic task.
REPORTER: Secretary Leavitt, in regards to stockpiling masks and ventilators, are you aware of the sharp increase of silicosis lawsuits? And can you comment on how this is expected to negatively impact the availability of respirator masks in the event of a pandemic outbreak?
SEC. LEAVITT: I am aware. We have recently made orders for 100 million masks; however, we do not anticipate that would be adequate in and of itself. That's another reason that we are dealing with the states and suggesting to them that a hospital at a time, a clinic at a time, a school at a time -- they need to have a plan.
And there are many conditions in the market that could affect that.
REPORTER: Todd Zwilig (sp) with UPI, Public Radio International. I have a two-part question. Secretary Johanns, you mentioned the federal government has a reimbursement program so that if poultry producers have to cull their poultry they get reimbursed, and you mentioned that's an incentive for them to report to you immediately. But that doesn't seem like a significant cost they would confront. The cost of birds is low compared to the fear and concern that would be spread among the public so they wouldn't buy poultry in the future.
That being the case, what are you doing to guarantee or can you guarantee that private companies, poultry producers, will report to you as soon as they know they have a positive bird if they have a positive bird?
SEC. JOHANNS: I'd probably debate with you the premise of your question. The premise of your question is that somehow that cost is low and --
REPORTER: Not that it's low but that the other cost is higher.
SEC. JOHANNS: Yeah. Here's what's going to happen. If they have H5N1 their birds are going to die. If they have high path H5N1, I mean that spreads very aggressively in poultry. We've seen that over and over again; we've seen it around the world. And they are literally going to be there with a chicken house full of dead chickens. And it's that straightforward.
They will contact us because we will assure them that we will pay for the work to be done to destroy those birds. We will compensate them for the destruction of the birds. So I really strongly debate the premise of your question.
The other thing I would tell you is, it is a very sophisticated industry in the United States. They are very concerned about the industry and making sure that if the virus does land in the commercial flock that it is eradicated. And we have the way to eradicate it but it does require destroying the birds.
REPORTER: Secretary Leavitt, one of your priorities throughout this preparation has been vaccines, and part of that priority has been security liability protection for vaccine makers. A lot of people on the Hill, mostly Democrats, have been very upset about the way that liability protection was achieved. Nobody on the Hill has said there shouldn't be special protection for vaccine makers, but that the provisions that are now in law were in effect rammed through, and they're much broader than they have to be. Putting the debate aside, why wasn't this done in a way that brought everyone to the table and has left so many people, so many decision makers at odds with the administration over how to prepare?
SEC. LEAVITT: Vaccine and liability is always a controversial subject. I met personally with vaccine makers as did the President. For the purpose of being able to ask what do we have to do in order to ratchet up our production to meet this objective of having 300 million courses within a six-month period, they told us there were three things that were barriers. One was liability. The second was the need for FDA streamlining the regulatory process. And the third was to assure there was someone there to buy the vaccine should it be produced.
With respect to the first, Congress did act. We could not begin the development of vaccines without it. And without respect to our comment on what the process was, it was a critical part to unlocking the barrier to solving that problem.
Obviously we're working with the FDA on the third problem, but it was a necessity if we were to have vaccines ready should a pandemic occur.
SEC. JOHANNS: Yes, sir.
REPORTER: FDA Today announced that they're banning extra label use of some antiviral flu vaccines for birds. I think it's Tamiflu mainly that they're talking about. Is this used actually all that often? I mean, how big a deal is this? Is this something that the poultry producers even use that often?
SEC. LEAVITT: I'm not actually sure what you're referencing. My technical advisers have any insight into that? That may be something we'll need to get back to you on if it's late-breaking news.
REPORTER: Stephanie Deal with Nightly Business Report. You mentioned that the poultry industry is-- you seemed to indicate they're very well prepared. Is there anything they still need to do? And more broadly, how prepared are businesses and what do they still need to do if there were to be a pandemic?
SEC. JOHANNS: Like you said biosafety measures for poultry have been in place a long time, not just related to avian influenza. The industry started consolidating literally when I was growing up on a farm in the '50s and '60s. We pretty much started to leave the 500-bird flocks to the very larger flocks and now you go to many parts of the country and you see the very long houses and a lot of birds are raised there -- turkey and chickens. So it is an industry that has consolidated over time, and that's what makes it quite a bit different than other parts of the world.
The rest of the industry, you know we've been working with them for a long time whether it's retail or wholesale or the producers. We've worked with them on the issues that they faced, and so I just see a level of preparation there. They are doing testing. So for me it's comforting to see. They are reaching out to us, trying to figure out how best to be prepared. And so it's been a pretty good working relationship.
SEC. LEAVITT: Can I comment on that?
SEC. JOHANNS: Yeah.
SEC. LEAVITT: Earlier I indicated there were lessons we learned from Katrina that can be applied. Some of them pointing out the differences in a pandemic and other natural disasters. I indicated one of the differences was that it was constrained to an area.
Second difference is that a pandemic does not occur in two or three days and then move into recovery like most natural disasters. It goes for a period of between 12 and 18 months and will happen in waves of between 6 and 8 weeks, twice and sometimes three times.
What that means is, that life has to go on during that entire period of time, and people have to eat, to make a living, and therefore businesses are dependent upon to deliver goods and services during that period. It isn't just poultry businesses that need to be planning and preparing. It's every business. They need to ask themselves the question-- how would we continue to operate, to serve our customers and the public in general, if 40 percent of our workforce could not come to work for a two to four-week period?
That's the reason that this planning has to be so deep. It has to go well beyond public health. It has to be local elected officials, business leaders, colleges, schools, faith leaders. Everyone needs to be involved in pandemic planning, not just those who have domestic flocks, not just those who are hospitals and clinics, but those who are involved in business in any way serving the public.
SEC. JOHANNS: Yes, sir.
REPORTER: Hi. Seth Lindon at BC Alaska. As you know Alaska is the most likely point of entry if you will for migratory birds that would be spreading this disease. And so that said, and based on the fact that you have a population there that is a subsistence population that essentially relies on the land for its food and hunts and fishes, etcetera, it seems inevitable that you're going to have some sort of human contact with this disease at some point.
Why am I perhaps wrong on that? And what reassurances would you offer particularly to residents in that state who are going to face this it seems almost inevitably?
SEC. NORTON: If I can start with that, we've worked very closely with Alaska Fish and Game and have gotten a word out to hunters including subsistence hunters over the last several months about this process, about what kinds of precautions they ought to be taking.
Again I reiterate this is a disease of birds at this point. There is not a recorded case of someone contracting the disease from a wild bird. And so hunters that take appropriate precautions against this disease as they would against a variety of other bird diseases should be just fine. And we've put out information about that.
We do want to do the testing so we can make people aware of anything that we find. And as we see circumstances develop we can pass that information along.
At this point we have not yet seen the virus occur in Alaska, and it may or may not arrive there this spring.
SEC. JOHANNS: How about one more here and then one more there and we'll wrap it up?
REPORTER: Carrie Young, Bloomberg News. I just wanted to check. The Department of Interior will be the agency to announce that there's a case in wild birds, but who would announce if it's in a commercial flock, and who would announce if it's in man?
SEC. JOHANNS: When it comes to commercial flocks, we would announce that, and we would follow the same transparent process. As soon as we had test results we would get them out to the public via the media.
SEC. NORTON: It may or may not be the Department of the Interior that would be making that first report. We would work with other agencies and that information would be coming in from a variety of sources.
REPORTER: Which other agencies would be involved?
SEC. NORTON: USDA would be quite involved as well as working with a variety of state agencies, universities and so forth. But we would work closely with them as we're making our announcements.
REPORTER: And if it's in humans?
SEC. LEAVITT: It would undoubtedly be the Department of Health and Human Services and likely through the Centers for Disease Control. But I should point, make one observation. It is likely that incidents would first be discovered in a state. And therefore our coordination with state and local officials is paramount. There are protocols in place but it is likely we would see a confirmatory announcement made by the Department of Health and Human Services.
REPORTER: Fran Quisimmis, MSNBC. Are there things that consumers should know now just to have the sense of protection for themselves so if they were to come in contact with a dead bird they would highly unlikely that it was H5N1. Just to have some sense of power over the situation who they would call, what they would do, how they'd protect themselves, not to create a sense of panic but just to have some sense that you would leave it alone, you would call your local city. Just useful information that gives people some sense of empowerment.
SEC. NORTON: If someone finds a dead bird first of all, an individual dead bird is no cause for concern. That happens all the time. If people want to call someone, they could call a state Fish and Game agency or a local public health agency. People should not touch the bird. If they want to handle it, wearing gloves and putting it into a plastic bag might be the best way to deal with it.
If there are large numbers of birds or a significant number of birds that are dead, that can be caused by a variety of different things as well. We have cases of botulism or of parasites or of other types of avian diseases that can cause the death of birds. We investigate those routinely, and that would be a situation where we would be working with local Fish and Wildlife agencies.
SEC. JOHANNS: Okay, everyone. Thank you very, very much for being here today. We appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the continuation of the media briefing on avian influenza. I'm Larry Quinn speaking to you from the Broadcast Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. As we continue our question period this afternoon we remind reporters that if you'd like to ask a question you should press *1 on your telephone touchpad. That will alert us that you have a question.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt are here in the studio to receive your questions. Now we're ready to begin. And our first question comes from Miriam Falco of CNN. Miriam, go ahead, please. Not hearing from Miriam, we'll go on to Jeremy Grant of Financial Times. Barry Sleckter from Ft. Worth Star Telegram. Barry?
REPORTER: When would be the earliest any infected migratory birds would arrive on U.S. flyways? Would it be this fall or this winter or this summer?
MODERATOR: Barry, could you repeat that question one more time, please?
REPORTER: Yes, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes. Go ahead, Barry.
REPORTER: This is for Secretary Norton. Could she give us an idea when possibly the earliest any infected migratory birds would arrive via U.S. flyways? And for Secretary Johanns, is there any greater concern for the free range poultry facilities? And are there any different protocols for handling them differently from the large commercial chicken houses?
SEC. NORTON: The migratory birds would be coming from Asia and arriving in Alaska starting some time in April, and so we might begin picking up positive test results in Alaska at that point in time. It's important to note that those birds, the birds that are coming from Asia go back to Asia. And so it would only be if they would then infect birds that are from the Lower 48 who would then be going to the Lower 48 later in the summer and fall.
And so that is the most likely timeframe. If it did not happen this year, next year would be the time we'd be looking at those similar schedules as the most likely timeframes for migratory waterfowl.
SEC. JOHANNS: In reference to your question about free range birds, just a couple of points I would make. As you know and as I mentioned a couple of times during our media briefing, this is a very consolidated industry, so large majority of our birds are now raised under cover. We do have, we still do have some free range birds that are raised outside if you will, or they have access to a building but also can get outside.
We have a program that's called biosecurity for birds, and this industry has worked very, very hard in making sure that they have biosecurity items in place. The industry is very attentive. We've seen them work very hard. And then the other thing I would mention in terms of just the human health issue, as we've mentioned so many times, properly prepared and cooked poultry kills the virus.
So whether it was raised free range, whether it was raised in a building, the message is still the same-- properly prepare and cook your poultry and you're not going to get sick. It is safe to eat poultry because the virus is destroyed by cooking.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Goldstein from Bloomberg News. Dan?
REPORTER: Yes. Hi. Thanks very much for taking my call. This question I guess is for the Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Secretary, Secretary Norton did say that she expected about 25 to 100 presumptive positives. Am I to presume that the USDA's APHIS agency that's going to be announcing those presumptive positives?
SEC. JOHANNS: We will work with the Department of Interior and for that matter with the Department of Health and Human Services to get that information out there. But again I think if there's one message we can deliver today it's we intend to do this in a very transparent way. We want folks to have the information when we have the information. So whether it's a joint announcement or an announcement by one of our departments, our goal is the same. We want information to get out to the public.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from John Rashard of Congressional Quarterly. John?
REPORTER: Yes. Thank you. I had a question. I just wanted to make sure I was hearing this properly. Did you say that there have been no cases of low path as well as high path H5N1 in the U.S?
SEC. JOHANNS: No. I don't know where you got that from. We have had high path avian influenza in domestic poultry in commercial flocks on three occasions. 2004, 1980s, and then one that dates back some period of time.
In reference to low path avian influenza, let me just again remind you that birds go through a flu season much like humans go through a flu season, and oftentimes you won't even notice it unless you were trained to notice it. They recover, they're fine, there really isn't much consequence to that.
And so low path avian influenza has actually been in the United States in poultry probably 100 years. I mean it's not uncommon, it's not unusual, it's not dangerous, it's not even dangerous to the bird. It's when you get into the high path avian influenza that you really have fatalities in birds, and that's when we move very aggressively.
REPORTER: What I meant was low path H5N1 --
SEC. JOHANNS: Maybe that answers your question because we don't want to imply that we've never had low path here or even high path for that matter. That's been here on three occasions.
REPORTER: No. What I meant to ask was, low path H5N1. Has that been in the United States or not?
SEC. JOHANNS: Let me clear something up. We have not had H5N1 high path in the United States, and that might be the confusion that you're having.
REPORTER: Right. But have we had low path H5N1?
SEC. JOHANNS: Yes.
REPORTER: And when was that first reported?
SEC. JOHANNS: Dr. DeHaven might be able to answer that. Doctor?
DR. RON DEHAVEN: We've had a number of incursions of low path H5 viruses most recently a H5N1 virus. We can only assume that there's H5N1 low pathogenic virus in migratory birds, and that we have found an H5N1, for example, in Canadian birds and we would assume that the same bird population that is transversing Canada could come to North America. So it wouldn't be a surprise to find a low pathogenic H5N1 virus in migratory birds in the United States. But again as the Secretary has pointed out, that's a far different virus than the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus.
REPORTER: So the low path H5N1 has been found in migratory birds in Canada but not in the United States?
DR. DEHAVEN: Not yet in the United States, but we certainly would not be surprised to find it as part of our migratory bird surveillance program.
REPORTER: And when was it first detected in Canada?
DR. DEHAVEN: I can't tell you the exact time, but within the last 12 to 18 months when the Canadians made an announcement to that effect based on some migratory surveillance that they had been doing.
REPORTER: All right. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Secretary Norton, did you have an additional comment?
SEC. NORTON: I'm not sure whether there might have been some found in Alaska or other parts of the United States.
MS. SUE HASSELTOWN: I think what we can say about low path -- I'm sorry. I'm Sue Hasseltown with the U.S. Geological Survey.
I think that we can say that, we over the years, since we've been monitoring for avian influenza in wildlife in this country that we will have found some low path H5N1 in this country. We have not found it in samples in the last couple of years as the Canadians have. But we assume that it is here; it's just a matter of sampling.
SEC. JOHANNS: That gets your information to you?
MODERATOR: Okay. Going on to our next question from Cookson Beecher of Capitol Press. And standing by should be Miriam Falco of CNN. Cookson, please?
REPORTER: Yes, thank you. This is for USDA. I live in Northwest Washington, and so therefore I'm part of the Pacific Flyway. All around me are backyard flocks. Most of these people have had no contact about avian flu preparedness. They're not part of the organic industry. They're just chicken farms all around. I eat eggs from my neighbor's farm. But we also have two large commercial operations in the same area. So I'm wondering, let's say a high path form does show up in either a backyard flock or a wild bird, what would happen with those quarantine process for these commercial operations?
And then further down the road, when British Columbia announced it's low path form recently, great big trade doors closed shut for awhile. And so if we're announcing low path, what's going to happen to trade?
SEC. JOHANNS: Okay. That's a lot of questions, but let me do my best to answer it. If we identified a high path avian influenza in a flock, backyard domestic flock, we would follow the same sort of practice. We move in there, we in effect put a barrier around that area. We don't want people coming and going at random. We would, if it's high path we would destroy those birds. That is our practice. We would disinfect. We would test in the surrounding area so we could ascertain whether that high path had been spread, and so we would follow the same sort of aggressive practice with high path and backyard poultry that we would with a more commercialized flock.
In reference to trade, there are some very, very complex trade issues, but I can offer kind of a general approach that countries seem to be adopting. If it is a migratory bird, trade stays open. In other words, if we happen to find a duck or swan or something that flew in here and it's got high path avian influenza and it's a wild migratory bird, we don't have it in our domestic poultry, then I think I can safely say that trade would stay open.
In the event we identified a high path avian influenza in a commercial flock, then the practice has been to impact trade. Now our approach to that has been, we will regionalize. What do I mean by that? If we find a case of that in the southeast part of Canada for example, we will work with the Canadian government to put a very regional approach to that, and that would not necessarily bar trade in poultry in other parts of Canada.
International guidelines are the key here. We always endeavor here in the United States to follow those guidelines. We support those guidelines, and that's what we encourage other countries to do, and that's where the idea of the regional approach comes from is the international guidelines.
Complicated question, and you can get a lot of variations, especially when it comes to trade. But those are the general rules of thumb.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Miriam Falco of CNN, and standing by should be Margaret Haskell from Bangor Daily News.
REPORTER: Hi. It's Miriam. The press conference started out urging journalists to get the story right and rightfully so because the need to prevent panic is definitely there. One thing that's confusing is you've got USDA, Interior, HHS all talking about stuff, and then you've got the Homeland Security Secretary making comments saying bird flu can be here in a few months, which is really not news since it's been talked about especially by HHS and CDC for awhile.
So who takes the lead on this when it does come? How are you going to get a streamlined message across because it could be a local health department or veterinarian who makes the announcement. But it's all very confusing. Is this going to be a DHS or an HHS, or how's this going to be clear to both the public as well as journalists so we know which way to go? That's my first question. Then I have two small ones.
One is, when we had the fear of foot and mouth over in Britain, specific measures were taken at airports to prevent people from coming into the country with any kind of diseased shoes or whatever. Is anything like that going to be done?
Finally, you talked about vaccinating birds. Can you give us any more details how would the vaccine be administered?
SEC. LEAVITT: This is Mike Leavitt. I'm going to respond to your first question. Inherent in your question is the answer. If this is a wild bird you'll hear from Interior, and if it is a domestic flock you'll hear from Agriculture, and if it involves humans you will hear it from, and it goes to HHS for information. If, in fact, it becomes an incident that involves multiple departments at the same time because let's say it was a human to human to transmission, you would begin to see many different departments of federal government begin to move into action. At that point the Department of Homeland Security would play its coordinating role.
You made the point, it's a good one, that under most circumstances these will manifest themselves in the states. That's the reason we're holding the pandemic summits, and we're including agriculture officials and officials from various wildlife divisions under the auspices of the governor. It's quite clear that those messages do need to be coordinated, and we're working actually exercising among the departments and within states how we will respond in those circumstances.
SEC. JOHANNS: In reference to your question about borders and how we deal with that, if a high path avian influenza is found in a country then we have trade restrictions that we impose. Again we will work with that country and it's possible we can work those restrictions to a point where they're regional versus a whole country sort of ban. And we would work in that effort if you will.
But if you find high path in another country, you're going to likely find there's a ban in place in terms of live poultry and that's just the way we work -- and meat products also.
Now in reference to the vaccine, I will ask Dr. DeHaven to offer a thought about vaccine. But one thing I would offer about poultry vaccine, in the United States you have at any given time millions and millions of birds. I don't even know if I know the count; it's a very, very large number. Now most of them are grown in commercial enterprises, but you do have birds out there in more of a backyard sort of setting, an open sort of setting.
The other thing I will tell you about the United States is that our broilers aren't with us long. They are fed out and processed very, very quickly. And so the notion that you could somehow vaccinate every bird in the United States is not, humanly it would not be possible.
But Dr. DeHaven, talk about when we'd use vaccination as an approach.
DR. DEHAVEN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. As you pointed out earlier, we do have a bank of vaccines available to us, and we've done some challenge studies and shown this vaccine does provide protection against the virus that is currently circulating in parts of Asia and Europe. But in fact the numbers in the U.S. are staggering. At any given time we have 1.5 to 2 billion broilers on the ground in our annual production in broilers is about 8 billion. So from a logistical, economics standpoint, that would be overwhelming.
Secondly, if you vaccinate for a disease such as this you're accepting the fact that you may live with a small load of virus that you're expecting some small amount of virus to be circulating, and that some birds may be vaccinated and protected from showing clinical signs but they can still harbor the virus. So again, our primary strategy is going to depopulate, humanely destroy flocks that are affected, and only using vaccination in ring strategy. If it's spreading faster than we can contain it then much as you use similar strategy in ring fires around a forest fire, we would vaccinate poultry around an infected area.
The only other likely scenario is, sometimes there is extremely valuable breeding stock; we might use that vaccine to protect valuable breeding birds who would be in an area potentially exposed to the virus.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Margaret Haskell who is with the Bangor Daily News. Margaret?
REPORTER: Hi. Thank you. A clarification I need and also a question.
For clarification, I know you've addressed this a couple times so I apologize -- I though I heard somebody say there'd been several instances of high path influenza in commercial flocks in the U.S. one as recently as 2004. Was that just not H5N1?
SEC. JOHANNS: That's correct.
REPORTER: So it was a high path influenza but not H5N1?
SEC. JOHANNS: It was high path H5N2.
SEC. JOHANNS: For accuracy, but it was a high path avian influenza, and so in 2004 we followed the approach that we literally contained it to that flock.
REPORTER: And where was that?
SEC. JOHANNS: That was in Texas, the state of Texas.
REPORTER: Okay, thank you. You've all said several times how important transparency is to managing the situation. I'm seeing a lot of potential for some blurring of lines with public information regulations and guidelines. I'm thinking specifically here in Maine we also have a lot of backyard chicken flocks and so forth.
I'm wondering about a situation where if there were a die-off of a flock or extermination of an infected flock or if this pathogen does enter the human population if there was a household or a community that was quarantined, how specific can we expect the information that we as journalists get from the authorities to be? Will we be naming names and towns and places?
SEC. LEAVITT: This is Mike Leavitt. As respect to humans, we will be as specific as possible recognizing the restrictions of HIPA (sp) and the privacy of the patients and those involved.
SEC. JOHANNS: In terms of the USDA, we have different guidelines if you will. We're talking about poultry here, so if we identify that we have a flock and we test and that test comes out as a positive indicating that the virus is there, high pathogenic, then we're going to put that information out there.
Now again, very important thing to recognize here because the last part of your question concerned me a little bit. Proper preparation of poultry in cooking kills this virus. You're not going to get sick. And we have always put out information that, prepare your poultry properly, cook it properly, because that kills bacteria, kills virus, and so again let me just remind people that we've always said prepare and cook poultry properly. And that continues to be our message because it's important. It kills the virus and it kills bacteria.
MODERATOR: Our final question today comes from Jeremy Grant of Financial Times. Jeremy?
REPORTER: Yes, hi. Thank you. A question for Secretary Leavitt or indeed anyone else. Could you just be clear on exactly what this new program -- what's different between this new program and what you've been doing before? Because looking at the press release you've clearly been testing some birds in Alaska and various places already. Is this simply an enhanced testing program over on top of what you're doing already? And if you just boil down for me what's the difference between the before and the after if you'd like?
SEC. NORTON: This is Gale Norton. I can answer that. We have a much more extensive testing program than we have had in the past, and our coordination is much more comprehensive.
Birds are tested all the time for various scientific purposes, but we're now working with all of the various states and research organizations, federal agencies, to get that information put together to do testing in a comprehensive way and to have procedures so that we know if we get the positive H5N1 results that will immediately go to the USDA Ames Laboratory so that they can do the confirmation and high path/low path testing.
So we have a system that today is targeted toward detecting H5N1 and targeted toward getting that information to the right people at the right time.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Reporters, for your questions, and thank you, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns; Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton; and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. I'm Larry Quinn bidding you a good day from Washington.