Vietnam holds flu drill, Australia plans similar exercise to test pandemic readiness

Vietnam, the country hardest hit by bird flu, held a large-scale drill to test its pandemic preparedness, as Australia planned a similar exercise later this week.

India's top drug manufacturer said Sunday it was making progress in talks with Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG to make a generic version of the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

The drug is in short supply as countries around the world try to stockpile it in case there is a human pandemic _ which experts fear could happen if the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus mutates into a form that passes easily between people.

Vietnam's exercise on Sunday was believed to be the first of its kind. About 900 people _ including military, police, and health and agricultural officials _ ran through a scenario in which throngs of people were falling ill and dying.

Officials participating in the exercise were told lab results showed the H5N1 virus had mutated, and 60 people living near the infected victim were showing bird flu symptoms.

Health Minister Tran Thi Trung Chien said the 2 1/2-hour drill served as a valuable lesson that showed Vietnam's strengths and weaknesses.

The World Health Organization has encouraged countries to draft national pandemic preparedness plans, which include holding drills.

Australia is to hold a similar exercise this week, while other countries are planning desktop simulations to assess how well different government and civil agencies work together. A regional desktop drill involving the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is slated for next year.

At least 68 people have died from bird flu since it emerged in Asia in 2003 _ nearly two-thirds of them in Vietnam, according to WHO.

So far, most human cases of the disease have been traced to contact with infected birds.

North Korea said on Sunday that it, too, was working hard to prevent bird flu outbreaks.

Quarantine controls have been bolstered at entry points, and officials are disseminating bird flu information nationwide, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

It said some poultry has been vaccinated, and migratory birds are being monitored to prevent contact with domestic birds.

Earlier this year, the North culled about 210,000 chickens and other poultry during an outbreak, AP reported. V.A.

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