U.S. and international officials are pushing new efforts to deal with avian flu, a disease they say has the potential to become a worldwide pandemic.  About 60 people have died from the disease, which has so far largely infected poultry in Asia. 

The current strain of avian flu that has decimated huge numbers of poultry flocks in Asia first appeared in 1997.  The human death toll since then has been comparatively small, but health officials are concerned, because the virus has a high toxicity rate once a person has been infected.

At a news conference Thursday, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Jong-Wook Lee, said one of his greatest fears is that the current H5N1 strain of avian flu will evolve into a virus that can move easily from person to person.

"The difference is right now, the existing H5N1 is not very efficient, hasn't yet acquired this ability to transmit among humans," said Jong-Wook Lee.  "But when it acquires this ability, and there's some evidence that this will be the case, I hope this will be simply less toxic than the existing H5N1, which kills more than half the people infected."

If the new virus strain turns out to be equally deadly to humans, health authorities estimate the resulting pandemic could claim millions of lives worldwide.

U. S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky said this is the reason President Bush proposed a new International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, during his comments before the United Nations General Assembly.  First of all, she said, Washington sees avian flu as a potential and serious threat to the United States and the rest of the world.

"There are many health issues that, in fact, are, I would say, national security issues.  Because, clearly, a threat such as this can cripple, literally, not only an individual country, but in this case, countries," she said.

Ms. Dobriansky said the new influenza partnership will focus on enhancing and coordinating preparedness, prevention, response and containment activities.  When asked a question about how much money this would all cost, the U.S. official said that was another issue that still had to be determined.

"In terms of resources, as I indicated, we plan to host in Washington, in several weeks, a senior officials meeting," she added.  "The very specific purpose, one of the specific purposes of that meeting, is to take stock of the situation worldwide, to have a collective assessment, of not only what are the needs and priorities, but how, in terms of resources, what's the level of resources?"

Membership in the influenza partnership is voluntary.  Ms. Dobriansky said countries that have already joined include Argentina, Australia, Britain, Cambodia, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

When a reporter pointed out that China is not on the list, the Undersecretary said President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed avian flu when they met in New York Tuesday.  She said President Hu told President Bush China is taking steps internally to fight avian flu, and also plans to strengthen international cooperation. 

In 2003, Chinese leaders came under heavy international criticism for initially concealing an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which killed about 800 people.  Experts blamed Beijing's cover-up for the virus's quick and devastating spread to many other countries.