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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Fran Townsend
Fran Townsend
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
May 4, 2006

Fran Townsend

Welcome everyone. I'm Fran Townsend, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. I oversee the Homeland Security Council (HSC), the office in the White House that is responsible for coordinating U.S. Government planning for a potential influenza pandemic.

Before we begin, I want to remind everyone that a human pandemic has NOT begun. We are concerned about the H5N1 influenza virus, which has spread throughout bird populations in Asia, Europe and Africa. History has shown that influenza pandemics happen from time to time, and that the viruses that cause these pandemics can be linked to influenza viruses in birds. If the bird virus undergoes certain genetic changes, it could develop the ability to infect and be transmitted between humans. If that occurs, it could spread across the globe in what is known as a pandemic.

Given this concern, the President released the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza last November, and yesterday we released the Implementation Plan for that Strategy. The Implementation Plan ("Plan") is essentially a roadmap for the U.S. Government's pandemic planning efforts, and also describes our expectations for entities outside of government...because we think it is essential for everyone to participate in this planning.

With that, Let's move on to your questions.

Zachary, from Cambridge, MA writes:
The Presidents Implementation Plan discusses that HHS shall collaborate with private industry to accelerate development, evaluation and licensure of U.S. based production of new antivirals and other technologies. What should be HHS plans related to procurement and distribution of NEW antivirals?

Fran Townsend
Thanks for your question, Zachary. In order to address the influenza threat most effectively - and I mean the annual flu as well as a potential influenza pandemic - it is critically important that we work with the scientific community and industry to develop new vaccine and antiviral technologies. This has been going on for some time, but has been accelerated since Congress appropriated $3.8 billion for pandemic preparedness at the end of last year.

The best example of this came earlier today. Secretary Leavitt (of the Department of Health and Human Services) announced over $1 billion in contracts with vaccine manufacturers to accelerate the development of new vaccine technologies. These investments will allow us to bring "cell culture" and other technologies to market, so that we are able to rapidly develop vaccine for the entire population during a pandemic.

The same type of effort is necessary with antiviral drugs. We are looking at new antiviral agents at various stages of development, and expanding our research efforts to identify new ways to target the influenza virus.

Jan, from Atlanta writes:
The National Influenza Plan mentions several times that businesses, communities and people have to be prepared to be "on their own" for significant periods of time, due to the duration and extent of a pandemic emergency. I appreciate the Federal Government being realistichonest about this. However, even after the Katrina experience, too many people still seem to think that "the government will take care of me if something happens". How do you plan to change this attitude?

Fran Townsend
Jan, we recognize that and are working to change that mindset. This is critically important when it comes to pandemic planning, because the best way to protect oneself from an outbreak is to take action at the community level to reduce the spread of the disease. There is no question that the Federal Government carries significant responsibility here - and that is what the Plan that we announced yesterday describes - but all of our plans depend upon the collective action of individuals, families, business, schools, and state and local governments. If everyone participates in this planning, we can do much to reduce the spread of the virus and limit its impact on the functioning of our communities.

Joel, from Brooklyn writes:
As you wrote in your Katrina Lessons Learned book, "Our preparedness culture must also emphasize the importance of citizen and community preparedness. Citizen and community preparedness are among the most effective means of preventing terrorist attacks as well as protecting against, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from all hazards." Do you feel this also applies to a possible pandemic? What about your other recommendations (119-125) regarding Citizen Preparedness?

Fran Townsend
Yes, citizen and community preparedness is very important, perphaps most important, when it comes to to pandemic planning. There are concrete steps that can be taken to protect you and your families during a pandemic, and to prepare you and your communities beforehand. The best place to go for this guidance is If you go to the "Individual Preparedness" tab, you will find up-to-date advice on those steps, as well as the latest news on anything related to the avian or pandemic influenza threat.

Beth, from Maryland writes:
Dear Ms. Townsend, Are there any cases of the "bird flu" in the US? Also, what precautions should I take for my family?

Fran Townsend
There have not been any cases of the "bird flu" that is currently causing concern in Asia, Africa and Europe. That outbreak is due to the H5N1 virus, which we have not yet seen in the U.S.

Given the remarkable spread of the virus in wild birds, though, there is certainly a chance that the virus could arrive in our wild bird population sometime this year. If that happens, there are a few things that you should know:

- The arrival of the H5N1 virus in wild birds does NOT mean that it is in our poultry (such as the chicken and turkey that you buy at the store or eat in a restaurant). The industry has taken many steps to prevent viruses in the wild bird population from making into our domestic poultry.

- The arrival of the H5N1 virus in birds does NOT mean that a human pandemic has begun. The virus would have to undergo genetic changes to become one that can easily infect and be transmitted between humans.

- In the unlikely event that the H5N1 virus makes it from wild birds into our domestic poultry population, it would not represent a significant threat to those who eat chicken or turkey because properly cooked poultry kills the virus.

Fran Townsend

Thank you, everyone, for your great questions. I'm sorry that we didn't have time to cover more ground, but I can tell you that many of the answers can be found on That is the U.S. Government single resource for accurate, updated information on avian influenza and the pandemic threat.

I've enjoyed this, and look forward to our next chat.