At least eight Asia-Pacific countries will cooperate next month in the first regional test of responses to a potential influenza pandemic that could kill millions of people, officials said yesterday.
Australia and Singapore will lead the international exercise, to be held June 7-8, based on the scenario that an avian-flu virus -- possibly the H5N1 strain -- has mutated into a human flu strain and started to spread.
The exercise will test how authorities react to possible human-to-human spread of the virus, international arrangements for emergency management and especially communications, according to a document presented at a three-day APEC conference in Danang.
It would be the first real-time, regional exercise on a pandemic flu and would be a "desktop" rehearsal in which emergency officials stay in their home-country offices to practise how best to communicate in a global health crisis, said coordinator Neil Head, director of Emergency Management Australia.
The exercise would be conducted during normal business hours, Head said.
"You definitely won't see people running around in masks," Head said. "It is very important that we do something that involves people at their own desks as they would normally be and in their own time zone."
"We will build the exercise as much as possible to reflect what could take place in the real world should a human pandemic occur," Australian security official Helena Studdert said on the sidelines of the 21-member group's meeting of health and agriculture ministers to discuss bird flu.
She said that the round-the-clock exercise scheduled would be centered in Canberra and be co-facilitated by Singapore.
Six APEC members -- Japan, Chile, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia -- have agreed to take on primary roles and eight others were described as secondary participants.
Scientists fear the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed 113 people out of 205 infections in nine countries since 2003, could mutate into a form that jumps easily between people. Although the disease has spread among birds in 45 countries, human infections are relatively rare and the virus is difficult for humans to contract.
Hans Troedsson, the UN's WHO representative in Vietnam, said the test "as a very good initiative" to prepare for an influenza or other pandemic.
"The risk is there, the threat is there ... we need to be prepared for it and we need to be prepared in general for a pandemic," Troedsson said during a break.
The gathering in Vietnam, the country hardest-hit by avian flu with 42 deaths out of 93 cases since late 2003, was focused on medium and long-term plans to prevent bird flu.