Influenza expert says Southeast Asian bird flu outbreak is real threat

European governments need to spend tens of millions of euros (dollars) helping pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines in case of a flu pandemic, which could threaten millions if unchecked, a leading influenza expert said Monday.

Dr. Albert Osterhaus, of Rotterdam's Erasmus University, said Europe appeared to be well prepared to isolate outbreaks of bird flu spread by migrating fowl before they posed a risk to human health, although he said culling fowl and quarantining farms would come at a heavy price.

The real threat, he said, was likely to come from the already endemic bird flu outbreak in Southeast Asia mutating into a virus that is easily transmitted between humans.

"If that were to happen with humans, then we will have a very dangerous situation," Osterhaus told a news conference.

More work was also needed to study the risk of migratory birds taking bird flu to previously unaffected areas in the Middle East and Africa, Osterhaus said.

He called for more government and European Union funding for the drugs industry to develop "prototype vaccines" to prepare for a possible human flu pandemic, should the bird flu virus mutate enough to spark one.

About Ђ150 million (US$180 million) would be needed to develop such vaccines, said Osterhaus, who is chairman of the European Scientific Working group of Influenza _ an organization funded by seven pharmaceutical companies.

He also urged the creation of a European task force to coordinate anti-flu efforts of doctors, vets, government policy makers and nongovernment organizations, the AP informs.

Osterhaus said governments investing in measures to counter germ attacks from terrorists should be aware that disease posed a greater threat. "The real bio-terrorist today is nature," he said.

Based on the experience in containing a bird flu outbreak in the Netherlands in 2003, Europe should be prepared to shoulder a significant cost to cull birds and isolate poultry farms at risk.

"This will cost enormous amounts of money," Osterhaus said, but added that the Dutch experience should have left Europe prepared for such outbreaks before they developed into an epidemic on the scale affecting Asia.

"I think we have a blueprint how to manage this," Osterhaus said. "The risk to humans, because of all the experience, will be limited."

As a precaution, Osterhaus said European governments should move to ensure that at least a third of their populations are vaccinated against regular flu. That would ensure that production levels are geared up to producing large amounts of vaccine in the event of a pandemic, the said.

There are no human vacinnes for the current strain of bird flu, however. Scientists believe Tamiflu tablets may help humans fight against bird flu contraction, which is rare but possible.

In the best cases currently, Osterhaus said, countries were vaccinating about 20 percent of their people. Stockpiling vaccines remains difficult because they need to be constantly modified to cope with mutations of flu viruses.


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