Take H5N1 seriously, but no need for panic
Updated: 2005-11-14 05:48
There is no reason to panic in view of the availability of Tamiflu which is
widely considered the most effective drug in fighting bird influenza in human.
The WHO has advised all nations to maintain Tamiflu for the needs of 25 per cent
of their populations.
Subsequently, Swiss Tamiflu maker Roche Holding AG has been very busy
producing the amounts required for mankind. Roche claimed its rivals would take
years to copy the drug. Given this presumption, it will take a decade for Roche
alone to produce sufficient Tamiflu pills for all nations.
As a patented drug, fortunately, it should not be too difficult to replicate
provided that proper consent or authorization is given by the patent holder.
Regardless of Roche's warning of a potentially explosive process involved,
Taiwan's scientists have successfully reproduced Tamiflu after 18 days in the
laboratory. Another Indian drug maker, Cipla Ltd, said it would begin making the
drug. In China, drug makers indicated that if the epidemic spreads, they will
produce their own version of Tamiflu. Under the Patent Law of the PRC, it is
permissible in case of a public health crisis and emergency.
In contrast to what was asserted by Roche, scientists agree it is easy to
produce Tamiflu once its active ingredient shikimic acid can be reproduced
first. It is derived from star anise, a spice widely grown and used in China,
Japan and most Asian nations.
Understanding the situation, Roche has begun talks about licensing Tamiflu to
more than 100 parties who are interested in making the drug. Without a proven
vaccine for humans to be immune from the disease, governments around the world
have pinned their hopes on this antiviral drug against any possible outbreak.
But prediction and prevention are always better than cure. The HKSAR
government is enforcing its Influenza Vaccination Programme, providing free
vaccinations to all people at risk who may develop complications or have chronic
illness, and those who may be unable to afford the cost of the private medical
sector. It is said that 250,000 people will benefit from the programme.
In 1997, the HKSAR prevented H5N1 from spreading by immediately and
decisively killing millions of poultry. Similar preventive measures shall also
be taken to avoid human contact with infected poultry and livestock, and poultry
markets should be closed if infected poultry is discovered.
Epidemics are global in nature, and demand a concerted regional and/or
international cooperation and positive response. The HKSAR should maintain close
ties with the mainland and other areas in this respect and the public has the
right to be well informed about the virus. Needless to say the government should
prepare its own emergency programme to thwart any possible outbreak.
As migrating birds are believed to have carried the deadly H5N1 strain of
virus, the Mai Po wetland should be subjected to close surveillance during this
winter and next spring when 50,000 wild birds stop over and breed there either
After the painful experience of SARS in 2003, the Hong Kong public has
learned that the existing design of the sewage system in a highrise building can
affect the health of its residents, and the same applies to the ventilation
systems of various hospitals. The HKSAR government should make sure that all
deficiencies have been followed up and made good before a pandemic begins.
The epidemic situation in Asia is serious, but the prospect is bright. Since
a known pandemic killed large numbers in 1918, medical science and technology
have been advancing by leaps and bounds, and governments all over the world have
seen much improvement and people of different nations have become more
With joint efforts of all governments, medical professionals and people of
all nations, mankind will certainly win the battle against this tiny H5N1 virus.
If HKSAR could handle bird flu properly in 1997, we have no reason to doubt that
it will be able to do the same now.
(HK Edition 11/14/2005 page5)