EU foreign ministers urged global cooperation on Tuesday to tackle the threat of avian flu, as Greece investigated what could prove the first appearance of the deadly strain in an EU member country.
Swiss drugmaker Roche, under pressure to raise output of antiviral flu drug Tamiflu, said it might let rival firms and governments produce it under license for emergency pandemic use. A Dutch company said it was working on a vaccine.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, chairing an emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said the discovery of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in Turkey and Romania was no cause for panic.
“So far there is no evidence of any transfer of the virus to human beings. Let us hope that remains the situation,” Straw told a news conference after the meeting.
Straw said people were bound to be concerned and the European Union needed to show it was doing all it could.
Scientists fear if the H5N1 virus, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since it first appeared there in 1997, passes from birds to humans on a large scale it could mutate into a variety that could spread easily between humans. In a virulent form, they say, this could kill millions worldwide.
EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou, coordinating the 25-nation bloc’s response to avian flu, said Brussels did not yet know whether the virus detected in a bird on the Aegean island of Chios was the deadly strain. Tests were proceeding.
Greece took precautionary measures, banning exports of living poultry, meat and other poultry products from the island to EU member states and third countries.
Chief threat in Asia
The foreign ministers said in a statement the EU could not act effectively on its own in tackling a threat that could move so quickly across countries and continents.
“The Council (of ministers) recognized that avian and pandemic influenza are global threats and called for an international coordinated response,” the statement said.
Roche Holding AG said it would be willing to discuss giving a production license for Tamiflu to rival firms including Indian generic drug maker Cipla. Executive David Reddy said however the firm had not yet been approached by Cipla, which has said it could make a copy-cat version to help governments build stocks.
Dutch company Akzo Bobel NV said it was working on a human vaccine and would begin clinical trials next year.
But scientists say development is difficult before the exact architecture of a mutated virus is known.
Kyprianou said after briefing EU foreign ministers more than half of EU states had placed orders for anti-viral flu drugs.
Spain said it was planning to treat between 15 and 25 percent of the population, mostly old people and the very young. The Health Ministry said it had previously bought Tamiflu but was also considering GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza medicine.
The World Health Organization has expressed fears that alarm in Europe could distract attention from what is the real seat of the danger in southeast Asia. More than 60 people have died of the disease in Asia where, by contrast to Europe, people often live close to poultry and are exposed to a greater threat.
Macedonia said one dead chicken found among hundreds in a village north of the Greek border had raised suspicions and samples were being sent to Britain for tests.
The former Yugoslav republic is also awaiting the results of local tests on chickens that died near Kumanovo, on the country’s northern border with Serbia.
Turkish authorities were examining the remains of some 500 quails found in the west of the country and Romania said it had testing for possible new cases in the Danube delta, one of them close to the border with Ukraine, whose agriculture minister said farmers in the area were being told to keep birds indoors.
In East Africa, which lies on a major migration route for some of the virus-affected wild species, a U.N. representative said officials from the region planned to meet in Rwanda later this month to work out a strategy.
Greece, however, was the focus of attention on Tuesday.
The farmer who alerted authorities after seeing turkeys fall ill said he feared for his island.
“Yes I am concerned, but not just for me but for all the people here,” Dimitris Komninaris told reporters. “But everyone on the island is keeping calm.”
Besides the human danger, countries visited by bird flu can face grave economic losses. The milder H5N7 strain struck the Netherlands in 2003, prompting the slaughter of 30 million birds and losses estimated at 500 million euros.