Alarmed by the spread of bird flu beyond Asia, nations pledged nearly US$2 billion yesterday to fight the virus, and stave off a possible flu pandemic.
The amount far exceeded the US$1.5 billion the World Bank had said was needed to tackle the threat in developing countries, where hundreds of people have been infected, mostly in Southeast Asia.
David Nabarro, the UN coordinator on avian and human influenza, described the US$1.9 billion total in pledges as "brilliant" and "quite extraordinary."
"What we've seen today is that the world really does care and wants to respond effectively to the threat of avian influenza and a possible human pandemic," he told reporters at the end of a two-day fundraising conference in Beijing.
Although primarily a disease affecting poultry, the H5N1 virus has jumped to humans, killing 79 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003.
With a mortality rate of over 50 percent, experts are worried that the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily from person to person, sparking a flu pandemic killing millions.
So far, most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds.
A senior World Bank official said that last year had been a taxing time for the donor community, but that the amount of money pledged in Beijing reflected international concerns about bird flu.
"The donor community came to Beijing focused on avian flu and I think it's been a very strong commitment," Jim Adams, head of the World Bank's Avian Flu Task Force said.
But he said that nations now needed to focus on using that money effectively.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that fighting bird flu in poultry was the best way to prevent the likelihood of a human flu pandemic.
"Avian flu should not be considered as a human health issue, but as a human and animal health issue," FAO head David Harcharik said.
The US would take a leadership role in helping to manage the funds and ensure that they are channeled to where they can be of most use, said the US coordinator for health, science and the environment, Nancy Powell.
The US pledged US$334 million, the second highest amount after the World Bank's US$500 million. The US also said it will invest billions of dollars over the next three years to develop a human vaccine, something medical experts have said cannot be done until the bird flu virus mutates into a human flu virus.
Japan donated US$159 million, China -- which has reported eight human infections, five of which have been fatal -- said it would donate US$10 million.
The spread of the virus from Asia to Turkey, where 21 human infections have been reported, spurred European countries to raise initial commitments.
EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said the EU pledged US$121 million, and the bloc's 25 member states pledged about US$138 million in total.
"Never before has humankind had a window of opportunity to prepare for the event of a pandemic before it actually happens," Kyprianou said yesterday.
"And now we know what needs to be done," she added.
The funding conference, co-sponsored by the World Bank, the European Commission and the Chinese government, follows a global bird flu coordination meeting held two months ago in Geneva, which brought together participants from 100 countries.