WASHINGTON (AP)– The Senate voted Thursday to provide $4 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stockpile vaccines to protect people against bird flu and prepare for a potential outbreak.

By voice vote, senators agreed to tack the proposal onto next year’s $440 billion defense spending bill. The Senate still must approve the overall defense bill, and a vote is expected next week. Then, the Senate must work out a final version with the House, which did not include money for bird flu vaccines in its defense bill.

In recent weeks, the United States has ratcheted up its preparations in case the virus – which has already killed or led to the slaughter of millions of birds in Asia and Europe – sparks an influenza pandemic.

The virus has killed just 60 people thus far, largely because it has not been known to spread easily from person to person. If that changes – and flu viruses mutate regularly – global health officials warn it could trigger a deadly worldwide outbreak that could kill millions of people.

The vote was a victory for Democrats, who sponsored the measure. They feared the United States was not ready for a possible outbreak, and pressed their concerns in impassioned speeches in which they called the bird flu one of the biggest threats the United States faces.

“If we have learned anything from the recent disasters on the Gulf Coast, it is that we must confidently prepare for disasters before they strike so that we are not left picking up the pieces,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sponsored the measure.

About $3 billion of the Senate-approved money would be used to buy the vaccine called Tamiflu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has called for a Tamiflu stockpile to treat 20 million Americans, yet there are only enough pills on hand to treat a few million people.

The rest of the money would be used to detect and contain the avian flu around the world, provide grants to local and state health departments, and educate the public.

On the Net:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov

Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.hhs.gov

AP-ES-09-29-05 1809EDT

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