Public health groups in China afraid of global flu pandemic spread

As China reported its third outbreak of bird flu in a week, public health groups urged officials to bypass patent laws and mass-produce generic versions of potentially lifesaving anti-viral drugs.

More than 500 chickens and ducks were killed by the latest outbreak Saturday in central China, which prompted authorities to destroy 2,487 others in an attempt to keep the disease from spreading, the government's veterinary bureau said in a report.

The outbreak in a village in Hunan province was confirmed Tuesday, said the report, which was posted on the Web site of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu began sweeping through poultry populations in Asia in 2003. It has killed or forced the culling of tens of millions of birds and jumped to humans, killing more than 60 people in Southeast Asia, mostly in Vietnam and Thailand.

Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But officials warn the virus could mutate into a form that can easily spread among humans, possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.

That fear has prompted a debate over whether to ease rules that restrict governments from producing and exporting generic versions of patented drugs capable of fighting the bird flu disease in humans. Under World Trade Organization rules, countries facing a public health emergency can issue so-called compulsory licenses to legally manufacture and export generic versions of patented drugs under strict conditions.

Health groups, including the medical relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, have urged the WTO to simplify the rules to encourage more producers to make generic drugs to ensure they are widely available should the bird flu virus mutate and become easily transmissible between humans.

The campaigners cite Tamiflu, which is produced by Switzerland's Roche Holding AG and is considered one of the few drugs likely to be effective in an outbreak of bird flu in humans.

A pair of Australian researchers published a report in the Medical Journal of Australia on Wednesday warning that the country's stockpile of influenza drugs will fall short in the event of a bird flu pandemic.

"Australia has an opportunity and a responsibility to promote compulsory licensing and generic production in the Asian region," one of the researchers, public health specialist Dr. Buddhi Lokuge, said in a statement.

Some countries, including Thailand, India and Argentina, have indicated they may authorize the generic production of the anti-viral drugs, the researchers said.

Indian drug maker Cipla Ltd.,which says it has developed a generic version of Tamiflu, has applied to Roche for permission to copy the flu drug, but has pushed the Indian government to invoke compulsory licensing anyway.

Meanwhile, some officials at a meeting of health ministers from 30 countries in Canada expressed concern about possible shortages of Tamiflu and other drugs in the event of an outbreak.

Mexico's health minister, Julio Frenk, sought support for a proposal in which developed countries would devote a certain percentage of their influenza drug stockpiles and future vaccines to share with developing nations.

"I think the ethical, the political, the future security implications of the situation where only the wealthy countries have access to vaccines and drugs would be unimaginable," Frenk told The Associated Press. "It would be as harmful, or even more harmful, than the pandemic itself."

And as countries talked about stockpiling and sharing their stores of Tamiflu, Roche's Canadian arm announced it was suspending private sales of Tamiflu in Canada until the flu season begins in December because soaring sales threaten to drain supplies, reports the AP. I.L.

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