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China Hosts Conference to Raise Money for Worldwide Bird Flu Preparedness


International health experts warned that more money is needed to track and prevent the spread of bird flu, which many fear could become a human pandemic. At a meeting in China, the World Bank and the World Health Organization hope to raise more than $1 billion to contain the H5N1 virus.

With the confirmed number of deaths steadily rising and new fatalities reported in Turkey this month, experts say the risk of a bird flu pandemic is growing.

Margaret Chan, a top pandemic expert for the World Health Organization, told delegates at a meeting in Beijing Tuesday that time is of the essence in fighting the H5N1 virus, which is beginning to appear outside of Asia.

"We must understand that when one country is not safe, the world is not safe," she said. "Pandemic influenza by nature would go around the world. So it is important for us to work as an international community to get a better handle on the issue."

Counting the latest four fatalities in Turkey this month, there have been at least 79 confirmed deaths from H5N1 bird flu since 2003. The cases in Turkey were the first human infections reported outside of East Asia.

The two-day meeting, sponsored by the Chinese government and the World Bank, aims to raise $1.2 billion from donor nations. Organizers say the money will fund improvements in health and veterinary services in developing countries where outbreaks have occurred. They also hope to boost surveillance in nations where the disease has yet to appear.

The United States is expected to announce its pledge on Wednesday.

Dr. Chan says the Swiss drug maker Roche pledged to donate two million more courses of its anti-flu drug Tamiflu to help poor countries prevent outbreaks of bird flu in humans. The company previously donated enough to treat three million people.

Most, if not all, confirmed human cases of H5N1 so far have involved animal-to-human infection. Health experts, however, fear that as the virus spreads among birds and as more people come in contact with it, H5N1 will mutate and become easily passable from human to human. That raises the potential for a global pandemic that could kill millions of people.

China, the host of the two-day meeting, wants to take a leading role in the fight against bird flu. However, Beijing has faced criticism over its failure to quickly share with the WHO virus samples from animals infected with H5N1. More than 30 outbreaks of the virus in poultry have been found in China.

China is not bound by international regulations to share virus samples. However, scientists outside China say it is necessary to have the samples to track mutations in the virus.

International animal health experts have accused the Chinese of being slow to hand over some animal samples to gain a commercial advantage from having exclusive access to forms of the virus - which can be used to develop vaccines and remedies or to further scientific findings. China denies the allegation.

World Health Organization officials on Tuesday said the Chinese government had indicated it was preparing to release some samples in the coming days.