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Fri, Nov 09, 2001 - Page 5 News List

Group of nations works against bio-warfare risk

COOPERATION The major powers decided to work together in an effort to prepare their population against the threat of future attacks

REUTERS , OTTAWA

The US and other major nations agreed on Wednesday to work together more closely to combat the threat of bioterrorism, in part by improving research cooperation and examining whether to jointly acquire vaccines and antibiotics.

The US is on high alert for more outbreaks of anthrax in the wake of the Sept. 11 suicide attacks and scientists say preparations should also be taken against a potentially catastrophic smallpox outbreak.

Canadian Health Minister Allan Rock, who chaired a meeting of health ministers and senior officials in Ottawa, said the world would be a safer place if the major actors worked more closely together.

"Today [Wednesday] we agreed that each of us in our respective countries will work together closely in the period ahead to coordinate our efforts to prepare our populations against the threat of bioterrorism," he told a news conference.

Taking part in the meeting were the US, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Britain, Italy, Germany, France as well as the 15-nation EU.

The participants agreed to explore whether to jointly procure vaccines and antibiotics and to coordinate the work of their most advanced laboratories, their surveillance systems and research capacity. They also committed to sharing their emergency preparedness and response plans.

"I very much hope that this meeting is going to be the first of many in which we can step forward and develop a great partnership ... (to improve) surveillance of the kinds of bioterrorism that's taking place in the US and prevent it from happening," said US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Canada will coordinate the work of the new group, which is due to meet at the ministerial level again in Britain in the near future.

"What we are after in the last analysis is peace but we are also after peace of mind for the populations of each of our countries," said Rock.

The meeting devoted a large chunk of time to talking about smallpox vaccines, although Rock stressed the participants felt the risk of a smallpox attack to be remote.

But the US is taking no chances with the disease -- a feared biological weapon because of its potential speed of spread and fatality rate -- and plans to stockpile 300 million doses of vaccine.

Thompson said he was in negotiations with three firms to provide the vaccine and would be talking prices with them over the weekend.

"I don't think you can be overly prepared ... it's so much better to have the vaccine," he said.

"If the terrorists know we have the vaccine in our countries it is less likely that they will turn to that virus and try to spread it."

Thompson said one possibility might be for the World Health Organization to set up a purchasing pool to buy all the vaccine that would be needed around the world.

Japanese deputy health minister Jungoro Kondo said Tokyo planned to stockpile 2.5 million doses of vaccine, enough to deal with an outbreak in a major urban center.

Rock said Ottawa was examining its options for enlarging Canada's stockpile, either by buying new vaccines with the Americans or developing its own source.

"We agreed that working together presents an opportunity for us to influence cost and that's something we'll be taking into account ... [common procurement] is one of the possibilities we discussed," he said.

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