Attention to bird flu crisis 'ratchets up'

  • World
  • Saturday, 08 Oct 2005

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush asked vaccine makers to do their utmost to boost flu vaccine production on Friday, while officials from 80 countries and the United Nations met to start setting up ways to fight a feared influenza pandemic. 

Neither meeting provided any immediate solutions, but U.S. officials said they served to raise the profile of the potential crisis and start setting up the networks needed to deal with outbreaks. 

A healthy chick stands in a cage on a chicken farm in the outskirts of Jakarta October 7, 2005. US President George Bush asked vaccine makers to do their utmost to boost flu vaccine production on Friday, while officials from 80 countries and the United Nations met to start setting up ways to fight a feared influenza pandemic. (REUTERS/Crack Palinggi)

"I think what this is, is ratcheting this up," said Dr. Bruce Gellin, vaccine coordinator at the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services and coordinator of the federal influenza preparedness plan. 

Experts have been warning since 2003 that the H5N1 avian influenza is the biggest current health threat to the world but policy efforts to battle it have only reached a peak in recent weeks. 

The virus has killed millions of birds across Asia and infected more than 100 people, killing more than 60 of them in four Asian nations. 

If it acquires the ability to pass easily from person to person, it could kill millions in the space of a few months, experts say. The world does not have enough vaccine to fight off annual flu, let alone a pandemic of avian flu, and part of the problem is that very few companies make the vaccine. 

Last year there was a shortage of annual flu vaccine. Congress and HHS agencies have been working to find ways to lure companies back into the business of making it. 

So Bush met with the chief executive officers of some of the top corporate makers of vaccines. 

They included Richard Clark, president and CEO of Merck & Co. Inc., Robert Essner, chairman, president and CEO of Wyeth, Jean-Pierre Garnier, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, David Mott, president and CEO of MedImmune, Howard Pien, chairman, president and CEO of Chiron Corp. and David Williams, CEO of Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine unit of Sanofi-Aventis. 

"It was primarily for the president to express directly to them the importance he places on this issue and to thank them for their willingness to step up and to cooperate with us on the development of a pandemic plan, both for the short-term and the long-term," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who attended the meeting, told reporters. 

"We talked about what's necessary to get to the goal of having enough vaccine in the shortest possible amount of time." 

Only a few blocks away, the U.S. State Department wrapped up a meeting of diplomats and United Nations experts. 

"That's a very good indication of the importance countries around the world place on this issue, said Kang Kyoung-wha, director general of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's international organizations bureau. 

"This initiative on the part of the United States government has solidly placed the avian influenza and the very real threat of a pandemic very high on the global agenda," Kang told Reuters. 

Officials have used SARS as an example of how countries must quickly share information. 

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome first started affecting people in China's Guangdong province in late 2002, but it was not reported until months later. By June 2003 it had swept to several cities around the world, infecting close to 8,000 people and killing about 800 before it was stopped. 

China was accused of failing to share information and ask for help quickly enough. 

"I think they've learned from their SARS experience that transparency is important from the earliest stages," Kang said. 

(With additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Lisa Richwine and Paul Eckert) 

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