China, Britain, Japan and other countries urged the World Health Organization on Monday to be very cautious about declaring the arrival of a swine flu pandemic, fearing that a premature announcement could cause worldwide panic and confusion. WHO bent to their wishes.
As the agency opened its annual meeting, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said she had listened carefully to the concerns of member states and would follow their instructions.
The new swine flu virus continues to spread rapidly, but the world is still short of facing a pandemic, Chan said, keeping the alert level at the currently phase 5 out of a possible 6, indicating a global outbreak is likely.
"This virus may have given us a grace period, but we do not know how long this grace period will last," Chan said. "No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm."
At phase 6, the world has a swine flu pandemic — meaning there is an epidemic in at least two world regions.
Countries want WHO to change standards
Health experts from dozens of countries urged WHO to change its standards for declaring a pandemic, saying it should take into account whether the virus was causing severe or mild illness, not just how quickly it was spreading.
"We need to give you and your team more flexibility as to whether we move to phase 6," said British Health Secretary Alan Johnson.
Chan repeated her warning that the virus could pose a grave threat to humans, even though only 76 out of 8,829 cases have proven fatal.
"A new influenza virus with great pandemic potential, the new influenza A (H1N1) strain, has emerged," she said.
Most deaths have occurred in Mexico, but there is global unease that the virus seems to be spreading easily from person to person and rapidly from country to country.
"We expect this pattern to continue," Chan said, adding it was unclear whether or when the world moves to the highest flu alert.
At least 40 countries now have confirmed cases — and the number of swine flu infections in Japan rose from four on Friday to over 130 on Monday.
Chan said the virus has now spread to the Southern Hemisphere after breaking out in North America, and there was a risk it can combine with other flu strains circulating now among humans south of the equator.
Another concern is that swine flu might combine with the bird flu virus that has been circulating for several years, she said. Bird flu is much more deadly but less easily transmitted among humans than the swine flu virus.
She said WHO had not yet given manufacturers the signal to produce a specific swine flu vaccine for the new flu strain, but said it was essential that countries be very careful with their medical resources. Chan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meet top pharmaceutical executives on Tuesday to discuss their ability to make vaccines to fight the H1N1 strain.
"Manufacturing capacity for antiviral drugs and influenza vaccines is finite and insufficient for a world with 6.8 billion inhabitants," Chan said. "It is absolutely essential that countries do not squander these precious resources through poorly targeted measures."
About 20 companies worldwide including Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis and Baxter International currently produce flu vaccines. Making a pandemic jab could require them to cut production of vaccines for seasonal flu, which kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people a year.