- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday urged countries around the world to start rehearsing plans for handling a human-flu pandemic — as Swiss drug maker Roche Holding AG vowed to increase production of Tamiflu to meet rapidly escalating government orders for the flu treatment.

Roche plans to make 300 million doses of the antiviral drug annually by 2007 — a tenfold rise in production from 2004, when the initial decision was made to start boosting production.

Orders for Tamiflu have soared as health experts have been pinning their hopes on the drug in case the bird flu that has spread from Asia to southeast Europe mutates so that it could pass easily between people.

Health experts at the first major international coordination meeting on bird flu and human flu urged countries that have not done so to draw up plans for handling an inevitable new pandemic, which the World Bank estimated could result in more than $800 billion in lost gross domestic product over a single year.

Experts agree that a global flu outbreak capable of killing millions of people is a certainty. It’s a question of when it will strike.

What is also certain, scientists say, is that the virus will come from bird flu. But what is also unknown is whether the H5N1 strain that has ravaged poultry stocks in parts of Asia and spread through Eastern Europe will be the strain.

It is the leading candidate, however, and authorities are trying to stamp out poultry outbreaks as rapidly as possible to reduce opportunities for the virus to mutate into a form that could pass easily between people and spread worldwide. Currently, the virus is difficult for people to catch, and most of the 62 reported deaths so far have been linked to human handling of infected poultry.

WHO has been urging countries to draw up pandemic flu plans for almost a decade, but many did not act until the bird-flu outbreak in Asia became an apparent threat.

Six months ago, fewer than 40 countries had a strategy, said Dr. Mike Ryan, director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response at WHO. Now, 120 countries, or about 60 percent of WHO member states, have planned responses.

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