updated 10/24/2005 8:47:59 PM ET 2005-10-25T00:47:59

World health ministers meeting in Canada to discuss strategies to fight the spread of bird flu emphasized Monday that preventing the disease from mutating into a deadly human virus was as important as developing new vaccines against it.

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That said, some officials at the opening of a two-day conference on battling a potential flu pandemic were discussing whether they might have to break international patent regulations to produce generic versions of Tamiflu if it came down to saving their civilians.

“A suggestion that’s being made by some countries is that there are countries that have the capacity to manufacture the vaccine, that we actually need to assist them with technology transfers,” Canada’s Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh told a news conference. He said technology transfers was “a euphemism for loosening the patent laws.”

Dosanjh was referring to recent statements by Indian authorities, who are weighing whether there is enough risk of bird flu spreading in their impoverished nation to invoke a compulsory licensing clause to lift Swiss pharmaceutical Roche’s patent of Tamiflu, the coveted anti-flu drug considered by many as the only viable one that can fight bird flu.

The World Trade Organization in 2003 decided to allow governments to override patents during national health crises, though no member state has yet invoked the clause.

“It may not be resolved here; but there are countries out there that are saying they will defy patent protections and we couldn’t be judgmental if people are dying,” Dosanjh said.

World Health Organization Director General Lee Jong-Wook said the conference delegates were consider a proposal by Mexico for the wealthier nations to put aside 10 percent of their stockpiles of Tamiflu and other potential influenza drugs for poorer nations. He said some nations had suggested 5 percent was more in line with reality, but conceded some countries likely would horde drugs in the face of a true pandemic.

“In tim e, when there’s a real need for Tamiflu, the basic instinct will be, ‘This is for our people,’ and it’s an unnatural act to share this precious small quantity of medicines with others,” Lee said. That is why, he said: “It makes a lot of sense to try and put out the fire out there, rather than waiting for this wave to reach you.”

Lee emphasized the need for transparency and immediate reporting of any cases of avian flu. China was widely criticized in the early stages of SARS for not going public with its cases.

Dr. Jacques Diouf, head of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, said countries must not overlook the goal of tamping down bird flu in Southeast Asia while obsessing over the development of antiviral drugs.

“As the world takes prudent measures to prepare for a major human pandemic, greater measures must be taken to stop this disease, in its tracks, at its source, in animals. This is very possible. It can be done,” Diouf said.

He said it would take more money to make a dent in efforts to wrestle under control the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, which is endemic in parts of Asia. He said 140 million chickens and ducks had been culled in Southeast Asian, costing those countries $10 billion and devastating rural communities.

Diouf suggested it would take $1 billion to make a dent in efforts to wrestle under control the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, which is endemic in parts of Asia. However, only $25 million has been pledged.

As the conference convened, European health officials were meeting in Copenhagen to review that continent’s readiness for a possible human pandemic.

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has been confirmed in Russia, Romania and Turkey, and experts in Britain were trying to determine Monday whether six Croatian swans found last week had H5N1 — a strain that scientists fear could mutate into a virus that would easily spread person-to-person.

Though medical research has advanced tremendously since the Spanish flu of 1918, which claimed as many as 50 million lives worldwide, air travel and open borders make the threat of pandemic ominous.

Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N.’s point man on bird flu, caused a stir last month when he warned that a pandemic could kill anywhere from 5 million to 150 million people, prompting WHO to try to dampen fears by estimating 7.4 million deaths was a better forecast.

The bird flu remains the greatest threat in Southeast Asia, where the virus has killed 61 people since 2003, mostly poultry farmers and their relatives in Vietnam and Thailand. Indonesia and Cambodia have also suffered a combined seven deaths.

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