BEIJING (Reuters) - China and the United States have pledged $500 million to fight bird flu in Asia as nations battle to prevent a feared influenza pandemic from spreading around the globe.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has set aside $248 million to counter the deadly bird flu, state radio said on Wednesday, while the United States plans to spend $251 million to help detect and contain outbreaks before they spread.
The U.S. funding was part of a $7.1 billion emergency funding request which President George W. Bush put to Congress on Tuesday.
The money for Asia would boost surveillance and early warning systems, establish emergency response plans and help to build laboratory capacity and spur efforts to produce vaccine, said Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, special assistant to the president for biological defense policy.
The H5N1 avian influenza has so far infected 122 people and killed 62 in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. It has infected poultry flocks across many parts of Asia and has been detected in birds in Europe over the past month.
It is making steady mutations that scientists say could allow it to spread easily from person to person and cause a catastrophic global pandemic.
The White House funding request includes $1.2 billion to make 20 million more doses of the current experimental vaccine against H5N1, $2.8 billion to accelerate new flu-vaccine technology and $1 billion to stockpile more antiviral drugs.
FIGHTING COCKS BLAMED
Thailand reported a fresh outbreak of bird flu in poultry on Wednesday and officials said the illegal movement of birds, especially fighting cocks and ducks, might be spreading the virus.
In the latest outbreak of H5N1, which has killed 13 Thais, laboratory results confirmed it in chickens and pigeons in the central province of Ang Thong.
Six of the seven infected provinces were clustered in central Thailand, with the other, Kalasin, in the northeast where fighting cocks might have caught the deadly disease from those in the infected central region, livestock officials said.
Health officials have expressed concerns that migratory birds could carry the virus from the edges of Europe to Africa where they fear it could spread quickly.
A leading regional expert said on Wednesday that bird flu could devastate African poultry and awareness campaigns about it must reach deep into rural areas to prevent its spread.
"The threat is a real one," Dr. Karim Tounkara, an expert on animal resources in the African Union, said on the sidelines of a meeting of specialists from around the continent tasked with hammering out an Africa-wide response to the threat.
"If we have cases of this disease, it will be real havoc for the continent because the mortality rate (among birds) can reach 80 percent. Once the domestic birds are infected, then the virus spreads like a fire in the bush," he told Reuters at the meeting in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
Governments around the globe are scrambling to coordinate a response to the threat of pandemic flu.
Australia said on Wednesday that Asia Pacific leaders will be invited to hold drills next year.
"We will be conducting a region-wide simulation exercise or series of simulation exercises in order to ensure that we are prepared if the worst happens," said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
The Senior United Nations coordinator for avian flu said late on Tuesday that international preparedness for a flu pandemic was "still nowhere near good enough".
Speaking via videolink to a committee in Britain's House of Lords, David Nabarro said he hoped the world had at least six months to a year before any mutation in bird flu which would allow it to transfer easily between humans.
Nabarro said he found some contingency plans drawn up by multinational companies "very, very scary". He said they involved "lockdown" -- companies retreating behind closed doors with their own stocks of antiviral drug Tamiflu.