U.S. poultry shares fall on report of bird flu deaths in Asia

Shares of poultry producers fell on Wednesday, while those of some drug makers rose, after the release of a report of an Asian family's deaths from bird flu.

Investors in the poultry industry sold on concerns about possible human-to-human transmission of the deadly virus.

Shares of the largest chicken producer, Tyson Foods Inc., were off nearly 2 percent in afternoon trading. Those of Pilgrim's Pride Corp., Gold Kist Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc. also were down.

In previous bird-flu scares, U.S. poultry exporters were hit on predictions that overseas consumers would switch from chicken and turkey to other proteins. The resulting glut of chicken in domestic producers' warehouses then depressed prices of other meats.

Despite that phenomenon, shares of pork processor Smithfield Foods Inc. rose Wednesday, and were trading at $27.80, up 60 cents, or 2.2 percent.

On the restaurant front, shares of fast-food giant Yum Brands Inc., which has a huge presence in China with its KFC chicken chain, were off, as were those of McDonald's Corp., which lately has been featuring chicken on its menu. Yum was down 2.2 percent, while McDonald's fell 1.2 percent.

But renewed interest in drug makers with potential flu antidotes pushed their shares higher.

Big movers included Peregrine Pharmaceuticals Inc., whose shares were up more than 6 percent in recent trading. The company said earlier Wednesday that its antiviral compound bavituximab had inhibited replication of a laboratory strain of the H5N1 virus, also known as avian flu, in fertilized chicken eggs.

Biocryst Pharmaceuticals Inc., whose influenza inhibitor Permivir is in test, rose 9.2 percent. Shares of Genere Biotechnology Corp., also with a potential vaccine in the works, were up 13 percent.

Novavax Inc.'s shares rose 9.6 percent. That company has a government grant to develop an avian-flu vaccine.

A World Health Organization spokeswoman, Maria Cheng, said that "we're working on the hypothesis that there was human-to-human transmission" in the family, but that the investigation is ongoing and that a definitive judgment of humans passing on the often-fatal illness is "incredibly difficult."

Meanwhile, others who may have come in contact with the family of which only one of seven remains alive will be closely monitored, she said.

At the same time, officials at WHO's Geneva headquarters are keeping their global bird-flu alert level unchanged at 3, where it has been for months as scattered reports of the fatal virus popped up around the world.

The global tally from WHO shows a total of 218 reported cases and 124 confirmed deaths in 10 countries Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. More than half of the deaths have occurred in Vietnam and Indonesia, reports AP.