Russia told the EU on Wednesday it had found the deadly strain of avian flu in birds in a region south of Moscow, marking the steady westwards march of a virus scientists fear could trigger a pandemic.
The European Commission said Russia had identified the H5N1 bird flu strain about 200 km (125 miles) south of Moscow in the Tula region, next to a lake with numerous wild ducks.
The deadly H5N1 strain -- which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003 and forced the slaughter of thousands of birds -- has also been discovered in Turkey and Romania.
As European countries geared up their response, Britain said it planned to buy enough vaccine to protect the entire population in case the virus mutates into a strain capable of killing millions of people.
And Germany said it would confine all live poultry to their pens to prevent them from coming into contact with migrating birds, believed by some to be carrying the virus from Asia.
Russia had already said it had bird flu in Siberia and eastern Russia. But Wednesday’s announcement marked the first time the virus had spread west of the Ural mountains, which separate Asian from European Russia.
The Russian Agriculture Ministry said 220 domestic fowl died of the disease last week in the village of Yandovka. Authorities imposed a quarantine and ordered the culling of 3,000 poultry.
Bird flu has also been discovered on a Greek Aegean island, but tests have yet to establish whether it is the H5N1 strain.
Romania, where the presence of H5N1 in a Danube delta village was identified last week, said further tests on dead birds from another village had proved positive.
The European Commission says risks of a human influenza pandemic are growing and has advised member states to stockpile anti-viral drugs. Sixteen EU states have placed orders for them.
EU foreign ministers declared bird flu a “global threat” on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) sought to calm fears.
“For the time being there is no reason to panic in Europe,” Zsuzsanna Jakab, head of the centre, told a news conference. “The risk for citizens to have this virus is minimal.”
Not adapted to humans
Scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into a variety that could spread easily between humans if it passes from birds to people on a large scale, but the ECDC saw this as unlikely.
“This virus is not yet adapted to humans. It is not capable of human-to-human transmission and until that happens this will not be a pandemic strain,” Jakab said.
U.S. experts also believe there is little chance of the deadly avian flu reaching the United States, which already protects its flocks by not importing chicken meat or live chickens from countries that have the disease.
“The migratory patterns are basically north-south. They don’t go east-west much,” said Larry McDougald, professor of poultry science at the University of Georgia.
“It is a natural geographic barrier. The birds that are flying across Vietnam are not the same birds that are flying across us,” he said.
And, underlining the view of many scientists that bird flu is a far more serious problem in Asia, China said 2,600 birds at a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia had died from H5N1.
Xinhua news agency said the outbreak, for which it gave no date, had since been brought under control. The Health Ministry said it had not heard of any human infections.
The World Health Organization has said the strain is endemic in poultry in China and across much of Asia.
But with European governments treading a fine line between avoiding creating panic and showing they are taking action, Germany said it would confine all poultry to their pens immediately after the virus was confirmed in European Russia.
“With the appearance of this virus in Russia south of Moscow, we had to re-evaluate the risk,” Environment and Agriculture Minister Juergen Trittin told Reuters.
And Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson said vaccine manufacturers were being invited to tender contracts to supply 120 million doses once the pandemic strain is known.
“We’re asking vaccine companies to gear up to supply us with pandemic flu vaccine even though at this stage we can’t give them the strain, nobody can,” he told a news conference.
To become a pandemic strain the H5N1 bird flu would have to mutate on its own or mix its genetic material with a human influenza virus to become highly infectious in humans who would have little or no immunity against it.
It could take four to six months if a pandemic strain emerged to identify it and develop a vaccine. The first line of defense would therefore be anti-viral drugs.
Swiss drugmaker Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral, told Reuters patents would not be an obstacle.
“We will talk to anybody -- people who can manufacture the drug, and are able to manufacture it faster than us, and complement our manufacturing,” chief executive Franz Humer said.