OTTAWA – Mexico's health minister urged wealthy nations to help provide flu drugs to the developing world, saying Tuesday that the divide between the rich and the poor would be catastrophic in the event of a global bird flu pandemic.
"I think the ethical, the political, the future security implications of the situation where only the wealthy countries have access to vaccines and drugs would be unimaginable," Julio Frenk told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a conference to prepare for a global flu pandemic. "It would be as harmful, or even more harmful, than the pandemic itself."
Frenk, attending the two-day conference with 30 health ministers and the heads of the World Health Organization (search) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (search), put forward a proposal to devote a percentage of antivirals and future vaccines for developing nations. While earlier reports had said he would suggest 10 percent, Frenk said he did not present a specific figure.
Ministers hedged any commitment, however, to set aside antivirals or future vaccines and said the World Health Organization should be the repository of any pandemic drugs. They added that the industrialized nations were working on a plan to assist WHO in the case of a pandemic and deploy to developing nations to help them contain any outbreaks.
"There was an alternative approach that we discussed as well, that WHO should be the first line for defense," said Canada's Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh. "We should come to terms on a protocol among those countries that can help, have the assets to deploy in a very strategic fashion to contain the virus if and when it starts."
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt (search) said it was crucial that the public not panic, but educate itself about a potential bird flu pandemic.
"Our jobs as ministers of health secretaries is to find the balance between informing and inflaming, to inspire people to prepare, not to panic," Leavitt said. "What we do know is that there will likely be another pandemic; whether the H5N1 virus (search) will be the spark that establishes that is unknown to us. Our objective is to prepare for the short and long term."
Bird flu has swept through poultry populations across Asia since 2003, resulting in the deaths or destruction of 140 million chickens and ducks.
Sixty-two people have died in Southeast Asia from avian flu, mostly in Vietnam and Thailand. Though human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds, experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted from person to person, possibly causing a pandemic that could kill millions.
Dr. Lee Jong-wook, director general of the World Health Organization, said early detection, containment and compensation for the impoverished poultry farmers who reveal their cases of bird flu were crucial components to preventing a global pandemic.
"What's the incentive for them to report? People come and slaughter all of their chickens," Lee said. "Clearly, some countries are doing better than others, but there should be some understanding and compensation for the farmers."
As the countries talked about sharing resources and stockpiling the coveted anti-flu drug Tamiflu, the Canadian arm of Swiss drug giant Roche announced Tuesday that it was suspending private sales of the drug in Canada until the flu season begins in December because soaring sales threaten to drain the seasonal flu allocation.
"We saw more demand one day last week than we did the whole previous year," said Paul Brown, a vice president of Roche Canada in Toronto.
Though earlier news reports indicated that the temporary freeze by Roche was worldwide, Roche headquarters in Geneva emphasized that suspending sales was up to individual countries.
Dosanjh said a showdown over Tamiflu (search) may be in the works and that some countries, such as India, might be forced to ignore patent regulations and develop generic versions of the drug. The World Trade Organization in 2003 decided to allow governments to override patents during national health crises, though no member state has invoked the clause.
Two drugs that fight regular flu, Tamiflu and Relenza, are thought to be effective in treating flu caused by H5N1 if administered quickly.
Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief medical officer, said Canada had a stockpile of some 35 million Tamiflu tablets — enough to treat 3.5 million people — yet he himself has not bought any for his family because it is only an antiviral that mitigates flu symptoms, not a vaccine.
"It is not the ultimate answer, it is not something which we can look to for some magic cure," he said.