US calls for expert panel to plan pandemic response

Nov 8, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The United States proposed today that a small group of experts be appointed immediately to plan a fast response in case an influenza pandemic erupts, as an international conference on avian and pandemic flu continued in Geneva.

Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), proposed that the World Health Organization (WHO) set up the expert panel, according to the Associated Press (AP). He also suggested that the panel be assigned to make a plan for closing gaps in flu surveillance and to complete both plans in time for the WHO's executive board meeting in January.

"We must go beyond generalized planning and well-intentioned expressions of cooperation," the AP quoted Simonson as saying. "Now is the time to speak and act with specificity."

Hundreds of experts in human and animal health and other fields gathered at the WHO in Geneva yesterday for the 3-day conference. The stated goal of the meeting is to forge an international consensus on how to combat H5N1 avian flu and prepare for a potential human flu pandemic.

Experts at the meeting disagreed today on whether the H5N1 virus can be eradicated in poultry, according to another AP report. Controlling the virus in poultry is considered the best way to keep it from evolving into a pandemic strain.

Samuel Jutzi of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told the AP that the world could stamp out the virus in poultry in "a matter of a year," provided enough money is invested. However, current spending is not enough to do the job, he said.

Jutzi, who was interviewed on the sidelines of the conference, observed that the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong all have eliminated highly pathogenic avian flu from their poultry stocks in recent years, the AP reported. He said the FAO would reveal tomorrow its estimate of the cost of eradicating the virus in poultry.

Alejandro Thiermann of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) told the AP he does not think the virus can be eradicated in poultry. "The virus is here to stay until, through genetic mutations, it really causes havoc or it's defeated by nature and disappears," he said.

On the other hand, Thiermann said the virus can be managed by rapidly detecting and stopping new outbreaks, according to the story. "We certainly have the tools to bring it to a point where we can manage it and almost eliminate the chance of it becoming a pandemic strain," he said.

In other news, lawmakers in Washington, DC, today voiced objections to President Bush's $7.1 billion strategy for battling avian and pandemic flu, the AP reported. Some Republicans called the plan too costly, while Democrats said it shortchanges state and local governments. The plan was unveiled last week.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he would not support the proposal because it would increase the budget deficit. At a hearing today, he asked if the administration would help Congress find savings in other programs to pay for pandemic preparedness, according to the story. But HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said Bush views the pandemic threat as an emergency.

Democrats at the hearing questioned whether the administration plan provides enough money for state and local preparedness, the AP reported. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., called the plan "long on directions and short on resources for nonfederal partners in pandemic preparedness."

Meanwhile, the drug company Roche announced today it had stopped selling oseltamivir (Tamiflu) in China and was turning over supplies to the government, according to another AP story.

Supplies of the antiviral drug are "being transferred to China's Ministry of Health for centralized allocation and distribution," Roche's Chinese division said in a statement quoted by the AP. The statement said that in case of a pandemic, "the government is in the best position to handle rapid response and distribution."

Oseltamivir is one of very few drugs believed to be effective against the H5N1 virus. Concerns about possible hoarding of the drug recently prompted Roche to restrict sales in the United States, Germany, Canada, and Switzerland.

Yesterday Roche announced it would increase production of oseltamivir to 300 million treatment courses annually by 2007, according to another AP report. That would be a tenfold increase in production since 2004, the company said.

Roche said it had received requests from more than 150 governments and companies to produce generic versions of oseltamivir or to get involved in outsourced production, the story said. The company reported it had begun negotiations with eight companies and several governments, including Taiwan and Vietnam.

See also:

WHO page on Geneva meeting, with links to presentations
http://www.who.int/mediacentre/events/2005/meeting_avian_influenza/en/index.html

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