TOKYO (Reuters) - Tamiflu maker Roche Pharmaceuticals said on Friday it was ready to donate more antiviral pills to Asia and aid organisations promised to speed the flow of funds to help the region battle bird flu.
The initiatives came as health officials met in Tokyo for a second day to discuss ways to contain a potential pandemic, fears of which have been fanned by a spreading outbreak of avian influenza in Turkey.
Roche, whose Tamiflu is thought to be the best defence against the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu, said it was in talks with the World Health Organisation (WHO) about donating more of the drug to set up an Asian stockpile.
The Swiss firm has already given 30 million capsules to WHO for "rapid response" stockpiles, part of which have been sent to Turkey, said David Reddy, Roche's flu pandemic taskforce leader.
Three children have died in Turkey from the disease and the first deaths outside of Asia have sparked fears that the H5N1 virus may spread further into mainland Europe.
Globally, the virus has infected 147 people and killed 78 of them, according to the latest official WHO tally.
Scientists say the H5N1 virus remains hard for people to catch and is spread almost always through contact with birds, but the rising number of human cases is raising the chances of it mutating into a form which could spread easily among humans and kill millions.
A British laboratory has found that two of the first Turkish victims were infected with a slightly mutated strain. Although it did not seem to be more dangerous, the mutation in theory could help the virus more easily pass from a chicken to a human.
QUICKER ACCESS TO FUNDS
Health officials at the Tokyo meeting, which was attended by over 20 countries, called for greater surveillance and urged rich countries to help poorer ones achieve that.
No fresh pledges of financial assistance were made by rich nations attending, which included Japan and the United States, but the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said it was preparing a new grant aid facility to help countries in preventing a pandemic.
"We expect the $38 million grant assistance which we are preparing now to be approved by the ADB board by the end of next month," said Jacques Jeugmans, the bank's principal health specialist.
Jeugmans said no new funds would be used for the framework, but added that countries would have quicker access to the money.
The ADB plan comes on top of a $500 million funding facility announced by the World Bank on Thursday, which also does not involve fresh money but would allow member countries to receive the funds quickly.
"The funds can be accessed quickly, without the bureaucratic process," said Jacques Baudouy, director of health, nutrition and population at the World Bank, adding that recipients should be allowed to use the money flexibly. "Countries should be in the driver's seat."
The Tokyo talks will be followed by a gathering in Beijing next week where donors are expected to pledge additional funds.