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Bird flu conference defers to WHO for preparedness
Updated: 2005-10-26 09:35

Health ministers and experts from 30 countries gathered to discuss the threat of avian influenza agreed Tuesday a coordinated international effort is needed to stop a possible pandemic, but offered no measures and little help for poorer countries.

At the end of two days of meetings, delegates said in a statement they had taken "important steps towards security long-term, sustained political and institutional engagement to address global pandemic influenza preparedness."

In fact, countries yielded to the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead the charge against the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus that experts believe could spark the next pandemic, with others playing only supporting roles.

"The WHO should be the first line of forward defense and we should support the WHO," Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said.

A proposal by Mexico and Thailand for wealthy countries to share five to 10 percent of their flu vaccine stockpiles with developing countries gained too little support to proceed.

"I don't believe that we came to a conclusion on that," Dosanjh said.

Instead, Canada and the United States pressed for developing countries to rely on the WHO's stockpile of anti-viral drugs and vaccines to stop future outbreaks -- about 30 million doses for three million people. Quickly thereafter, eight to 10 countries with their own stockpiles could come up the rear to beat down the virus, if needed, Dosanjh said.

An agreement on this proposal is expected "within days," he said.

Monday, Canada had offered support for a plan to loosen drug patent laws to allow generic production of anti-viral drugs and vaccines in some countries to address a looming worldwide drug shortage.

"We actually need to assist them with technology transfers which I believe is a euphemism for loosening the patent laws," Dosanjh said.

India and Taiwan said Monday they might allow their drug-makers to copy Tamiflu without obtaining a license from Roche Holding AG, the Swiss maker of the anti-viral drug believed to be the best human defense against bird flu, according to reports.

But Roche cautioned countries against producing their own generic versions of the popular drug. Its patent is protected until 2016.

Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott said the proposal would not alleviate the dearth of manufacturing capacity.

"This idea that we could have as much Tamiflu as we want if only Roche would allow people is just not right," he said.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt agreed and said the United States "will be respecting intellectual property and patents."

"It should be universally understood that this shortage of vaccines manufacturing is likely to persist for some time because it is impossible to dramatically increase vaccine production overnight," Leavitt said.

So far, more than 60 people in Asia have died since 2003 from the H5N1 virus after contact with infected poultry. Europe is now dealing with its first cases of affected birds in Britain, Romania and Russia, plus Turkey.

China was hit Tuesday with its second outbreak of bird flu in a week and about a dozen countries in Africa, where experts believe the disease is likely to spread with the arrival of migratory birds from Europe and Asia, have imposed full or partial bans on imports of poultry and poultry products in the past week.

The two-day Ottawa conference was the first to bring together both health ministers and experts from around the world, including Britain, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and the United States, as well as representatives from the WHO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health, to discuss avian influenza.

Leavitt said: "Our job as ministers of health or health secretaries is to find the balance between informing and inflaming, to inspire people to prepare, not to panic."

"What we do know is that there will likely be another pandemic, whether the H5N1 virus will be the spark that establishes that is unknown to us. Our objective is to prepare for the short and the long term," he said.

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