Swine flu has presented the Obama administration with its first major public-health crisis. Fortunately for the Obama team, the Bush administration developed new tools that will prove critical in meeting this challenge.
Under President Bush, the federal government worked with manufacturers to accelerate vaccine development, stockpiled crucial antivirals like Tamiflu, war-gamed pandemic scenarios with senior officials, and increased the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) sample identification capabilities. These activities are bearing fruit today.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already deployed 12.5 million courses of antivirals -- out of a total of 50 million -- to states and local agencies. In addition, CDC's new capacities have allowed Mexican officials to send flu samples to CDC for quick identification, a capability that did not exist a few years ago. Collaboration between the government and the private sector on vaccines -- which Mr. Bush and his HHS team actively encouraged -- could potentially allow manufacturers to shepherd a vaccine to market within four months of identifying the strain and getting the go-ahead from CDC or the World Health Organization.
But new tools aside, top health officials must answer difficult questions about response efforts. One is when and where to deploy antivirals.
The Bush administration considered a "forest fire" approach to pandemic outbreaks abroad. This strategy calls for sharing some of our precious supply of antivirals with a foreign country in order to stop a small flame from becoming a forest fire. The risk is that we have only a limited number of courses, and the use of antivirals increases the odds that the flu strain in question will become resistant to that antiviral. With 37.5 million courses remaining in the federal stockpile, the administration needs to think very carefully about how to use them.
Another issue: Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act of 2006, the government has the authority to issue "Prep Act Declarations" granting liability protection to manufacturers whose products were used in public-health emergencies. This helps encourage manufacturers to develop countermeasures. The government issued a series of such declarations in 2007 and 2008. They protected the development and use of influenza vaccines and pandemic antivirals, as well as anthrax, smallpox and botulism products. The Obama administration should consider granting more of them -- if appropriate -- in the weeks ahead.
A third policy question has to do with how to stop the spread of the disease both across borders and within countries. The administration has so far initiated "passive surveillance": Border guards are assessing if people entering the U.S. seem sick, but aren't actively stopping anyone. If things get worse, they may have to intensify border security.
The Bush administration examined the question of closing the borders in certain circumstances but determined that it would probably be ineffective. Worse, it could lead other nations to retaliate by closing their own borders, which could hurt Americans traveling abroad.
Another strategy, already in use to some degree in Mexico, is social distancing -- asking citizens to refrain from large social gatherings. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, St. Louis embraced such measures while Philadelphia eschewed them, and Philadelphia suffered a much higher death rate as a result. We are probably not yet at the point where such drastic measures are necessary, but senior officials had better start thinking about how they would address these questions.
Most importantly, the federal government must figure out how to reassure a nervous public. It doesn't help that none of the 20 top officials at HHS has been confirmed. Some of them, like FDA commissioner-designate Dr. Margaret Hamburg, are experts in biopreparedness and could help reassure Americans. Alas, she and her potential future colleagues, including the new secretary of HHS, are still in limbo. They need to be in place and on the job.