Health ministers from Asia have agreed to boost stockpiles of medicines because of the risk of a pandemic of the H1N1 flu virus. The agreement came after a meeting in Bangkok on increasing regional cooperation to fight the virus.

In addition agreeing to stockpile antiviral medicines, the health ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan and South Korea on Friday said they would share medical supplies if there is a flu pandemic.

Beijing will increase production of medicine

At the end of a health conference in Bangkok, Chinese officials said Beijing will increase production of medicines. Japan offered to send antiviral medicines and 750,000 protective suits for health care workers in the event of a flu outbreak in Asia.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told the meeting delegates that ensuring sufficient medical supplies remains a problem for the region.

"We need cooperation in other new aspects," he said. "For example, the development and production of vaccines as well as antiviral drugs, as well as expansion and sharing of ASEAN+3 and national stockpiles of medical supplies ? with access to these essential instruments in a thorough, adequate and timely manner, which is a great challenge."

Most of the global production of vaccines is in the United States and Europe.

Asia must plan ahead

Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a video link-up that Asia needed to plan well given the damage a pandemic would have on the region.

"Because the virus is new we expect more people to be infected," he explained. "More people will be susceptible; there will be more illness, more hospitalization and therefore greater strain and impact on essential services. The bottom line is that we believe that planning is essential."

Most of Asia is densely populated, and medical care in many countries is inadequate. That means a flu pandemic could devastate the region.

Health authorities, however, praised Asia's disease-fighting preparedness, which grew out of its experience with the H5N1 avian flu and the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Warning against complacency

Officials at the Bangkok meeting pointed to positive signs that despite the virus' spread it may be less virulent than initially feared. But ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan cautioned against complacency.

"Although we have shown our resolve that our health systems remain capable of containing the spread of the disease, this is not the time to be complacent. We cannot afford to let our guard down - a pandemic remains a formidable challenge to our region," he said.

Friday's agreement also recommended against imposing travel restrictions to fight flu, because they would be economically disruptive at a time when Asian countries are struggling with the global economic downturn.