Disease experts urged rich countries at a donors conference yesterday to come up with the US$1.5 billion that the World Bank says is needed to tackle bird flu and prepare for a potential pandemic in humans.
"We're talking about a tremendous amount of money here for an issue that is clearly of global importance. The stakes are very high," James LeDuc, a viral illness expert at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the opening of a two-day conference in Beijing.
"Whether it's SARS, or monkey pox, or avian influenza, or whatever the next outbreak, the capacity that we're building is going to be very important for global health," he said.
The international donors' conference in Beijing is focused on raising money to fight bird flu, which has killed at least 79 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003.
The World Bank has said that up to US$1.5 billion is needed over the next three years, and a World Bank official earlier said that at least US$1 billion was expected to be pledged at the conference.
Also yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that Swiss drug maker Roche Holding AG has agreed to donate another 2 million courses of Tamiflu to help poor countries battling the disease. Each course has 10 pills.
"Roche has agreed to donate Tamiflu for a second stockpile," Margaret Chan, assistant director-general for communicable diseases at WHO, said at the sidelines of the conference.
The new donation will be given to countries that may not have resources to build their own stockpiles and will be used to "help reduce the spread of infection," Chan said.
Roche has already donated enough of the drug to the WHO to treat 3 million people and company officials have said that it is expected to make 150 million treatments this year.
As the conference opened yesterday, there was speculation that donors were boosting their previous commitments. David Nabarro, the UN coordinator on avian and human influenza, said he heard that total pledges may exceed the US$1.5 billion target.
"If we surpass it, what that does is it gives confidence to the governments who have been doing the hard work that there are people interested in backing them," he said.
The World Bank has said that 45 percent of the funding would be spent in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Laos -- countries where the H5N1 virus is already endemic.
Most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could develop the capacity to transmit easily between people, sparking a possible flu pandemic which could kill millions.
Shigeru Omi, WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific Region, said the recent outbreaks in Turkey, where four children have died, showed the need for heightened surveillance in poultry.
"Surveillance is crucial, because in my view, the outbreaks affecting transmission among the chickens were there for some time without being noticed," he said.
Underlining the fluid situation, a toddler in Indonesia with bird flu symptoms died yesterday -- days after his sister succumbed to the disease, a senior Indonesian Health Ministry official said.
The three-year-old boy died in the west Java city of Bandung, where he had been hospitalized since late last week, Hariadi Wibisono said.