Flashback: Senator Obama rips Bush for being unprepared for avian flu epidemic

A nice catch from our friends at Grabien, who got it from Ace [update] and who had to go all the way back to 2005 to find this nugget and the contemporaneous coverage at the NYT. At the time, the US prepared for a predicted epidemic of the avian flu, also known as H5N1, of global proportions. The virus had been identified for 18 years by that time, but by the end of 2004 had only resulted in 36 deaths and 50 known cases over the prior two years, according to WHO data. In 2005, the number of cases would jump to 98 and deaths to 43, and the prevention of a pandemic became a high priority. At that time, then-Senator Barack Obama scolded the Bush administration on the Senate floor, and quarterbacked a protest letter from his fellow Democrats over the slow response and lack of preparedness by the White House:

This lack of planning is compounded by the fact that we still don’t have a FDA approved vaccine against avian flu, and the one drug that many countries are relying on—Tamiflu—may be less effective than experts had thought. The manufacturer is also struggling to meet the demand, and it could take up to 2 years for it to make enough for the U.S. stockpile, presuming this Administration finally puts in an order for the drug. …

The failure to prepare for emergencies can have devastating consequences. We learned that lesson the hard way after Hurricane Katrina. This nation must not be caught off-guard when faced with the prospect of an avian flu pandemic. The consequences are too high.

The flyways for migratory birds are well-established. We know that avian flu will likely hit the United States in a matter of time. With the regular flu season coming up shortly, conditions will be favorable for reassortment of the avian flu virus with the annual flu virus. Such reassortment could lead to a mutated virus that could be transmitted efficiently between humans, which is the last condition needed for pandemic flu.

The question is will we be ready when that happens? Let’s make sure that answer is yes. I urge my colleagues in the Senate and the House to push this Administration to take the action needed to prevent a catastrophe that we have not seen during our lifetimes.”

The New York Times reported on the scolding almost exactly nine years ago:

Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said the vote and President Bush’s comment reflected “some agreement that the United States is behind in getting prepared for avian flu and that the time to try to make that gap up is now.”

More than 30 Democratic senators, including Mr. Obama, sent Mr. Bush a letter today asking him to release the administration’s final plan for dealing with a pandemic influenza. The group expressed its “grave concern that the nation is dangerously unprepared.”

While in New York last month to address the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush proposed an “international partnership” to combat the disease.

He said today that he had spoken “privately to as many leaders as I could find” at the United Nations about raising public awareness and ensuring maximum efforts to quickly report any instances of the disease to the World Health Organization.

The W.H.O. and the European Union have been urging countries for months to prepare for a possible pandemic.

Something right must have been done, however. According to the WHO data, there have been no confirmed cases of H5N1 in the US. After peaking in 2006 at 79 deaths, both infections and fatalities have declined ever since; in the 10-year period between 2003-12, 359 total deaths and 608 cases have been confirmed by WHO worldwide.

In the same period of time for Ebola, WHO tallied 463 confirmed deaths and 741 cases. By July, the outbreaks of 2014 had already surpassed the numbers for that decade:

As of July 12, the cumulative number of Ebola virus cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was at 964, including 603 deaths. The death toll has almost doubled in a month’s time; reported deaths in the three countries in mid-June was 350.

“There’s been too much talk,” then-Senator Obama intoned, “and not enough action.” If that’s the standard Obama demanded of the White House in 2005, then now-President Obama has failed much more substantially in addressing the developing Ebola epidemic that has — unlike the avian flu — reached our shores.

Update: Added link to and mention of our good friend Ace, from whom Grabien got the data to pull the clip. Ace also reminds us when Obama eliminated tougher quarantine rules created by the Bush administration that might, y’know, come in handy now.