Nov. 1, 2005 — -- There is no bird flu pandemic now, but President Bush said today America needs to start preparing for one.
"If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare, and one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today," Bush said.
He announced a $7 billion plan to deal with the potential crisis. Bush called for $1.2 billion dollars to buy 20 million doses of a vaccine that may offer some protection against bird flu -- doses that health-care workers and emergency responders would likely get first.
Another $1 billion would be earmarked to stockpile drugs, including Tamilflu, that help alleviate flu symptoms; and $2.8 billion would go to develop technology that would make it easier to make flu vaccines.
"We're working toward a clear goal. In the event of a pandemic we must have enough vaccine for every American," he said.
The administration also wants hundreds of millions of dollars to help foreign countries -- including Asian nations -- detect and contain any outbreaks.
"If we expect an instant fix we're going to be disappointed, but we have to start working on longer-term solutions, and this is a great beginning," said Dr. William Shaffner of Vanderbilt University.
Senate Democrats, however, say the White House is late to the table -- the Senate approved nearly $8 billion for avian flu last week.
And they and others say the administration's plan does not give enough money to local governments to prepare for a pandemic.
"Most of this has to be done at local level, that is to say, they have the beds, the hospitals, the doctors, the nurses and everything else," said D.A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.
Bush's plan to deal with a future flu epidemic reveals some ugly realities of what could be in store if there is a global breakout of a strain of the Asian bird flu or some other super-strain of influenza.
Parts of major cities would become ghost towns, travel restrictions would go into effect, and hospitals would be overwhelmed.
"We get into a realm here of some very ugly scenes," says Dr. Irwin Redlener of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "There is most definitely the need to quarantine cities and quarantine people."
The draft of Bush's report predicts as many as 200 million Americans would be infected and 200,000 Americans would die.
"The first thing that would happen is that hospitals all across America would be overfull," said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Garrett recently authored "The Next Pandemic?," a lengthy article on avian flu.
Most cities would be expected to use large stadiums as makeshift hospitals, much as hurricane victims were given shelter in New Orleans and Houston. "Pseudo-hospitals," Garrett calls such facilities.
"There wouldn't be equipment and personnel to staff them adequately that you could really call them a hospital," she said. "You might more or less call them warehouses for the ailing. Very quickly our morgues would fill and we would have no place for the dead."
Public heath officials envision a 21st century version of the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918, which killed more than 500,000 people in the U.S. alone.
"Short of thermonuclear war, I have a hard time imagining anything in my lifetime that would be as horrible," Garrett said.
ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and "World News Tonight" Correspondent Lisa Stark contributed to this report.