UK dithers as 12 nations stockpile bird-flu drug

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Lek, a beggar who squats like a troll atop a pedestrian bridge in central Bangkok, used to keep a fluffy baby chick to attract passers-by to his outstretched cup. When bird flu broke out last year and Thai farmers were forced to cull 60 million poultry, he switched to a cute duckling instead. Last week, when Thailand's livestock ministry announced that 2.7 million free-range ducks must be slaughtered because water fowl can harbour and transmit the deadly H5N1 virus without showing any symptoms, Lek replaced his duckling with a wind-up toy.

Lek, a beggar who squats like a troll atop a pedestrian bridge in central Bangkok, used to keep a fluffy baby chick to attract passers-by to his outstretched cup. When bird flu broke out last year and Thai farmers were forced to cull 60 million poultry, he switched to a cute duckling instead. Last week, when Thailand's livestock ministry announced that 2.7 million free-range ducks must be slaughtered because water fowl can harbour and transmit the deadly H5N1 virus without showing any symptoms, Lek replaced his duckling with a wind-up toy.

Yet even though a third wave of avian influenza is scything through hen houses in nearly half the provinces of neighbouring Vietnam, there is little consumer concern in the Thai capital. Such a blasé response is surprising, given that 42 people in South-east Asia have died from bird flu complications during the past 13 months, with 13 fatalities since January.

The authorities are anything but blasé. "The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," Dr Shigeru Omi of the World Health Organisation warned an emergency UN conference in Vietnam last week. Joseph Domenech, head of animal health at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, called the threat "a sword of Damocles" hanging over the world. And Dr Julie Gerberding, head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "This a very ominous situation for the globe."

It was a week of the direst predictions yet that the flu could soon rapidly spread across the globe, killing tens of millions of people; by one authoritative estimate 500,000 could die in Britain alone.

On Friday, New Zealand became the latest government to announce a mass purchase of oseltamavir, the only drug known to be effective against the virus which has so far killed over 70 per cent of those known to have caught it. This follows mass orders by countries such as France - which is buying 13 million courses - Japan, Australia and Sweden.

But Britain has yet to decide whether to follow suit. There is a longstanding stockpile of some 100,000 courses, but the Government has not added to it since the crisis began. Yet Professor John Oxford, of London University's Queen Mary and Westfield College - one of the world's leading authorities on the disease - says that Britain would need some 20 million courses. He said: "This is a national emergency."

Yesterday, at Bangkok's Chatuchak market, a vast open air warren of stalls, fighting cocks were on sale and several bold birds were strutting outside their cages, close to hawkers sellingpiglets, and kittens. Chomsri Chattong, an information officer for the market that attracts a quarter of a million customers every weekend, dismissed any concerns that the crowded alleyways lined with caged songbirds and gamebirds, cockatoos and parrots might pose any risk.

The Thais, who used to be the world's fourth largest exporter of poultry products, are learning to live with the disease, just as they have learned to cope with Aids. Workers who prepare raw poultry or pluck feathers increasingly don latex gloves or protective masks. Few Thais have yet bothered to stockpile Tamiflu, a prescription medication used to treat symptoms in humans. Elsewhere in Asia, stocks have sold out after researchers announced that the virus had been detected in pigs and in sand flies. Senior virologists say it is only a matter of time before this variety of bird flu mutates and becomes a scourge capable of killing tens of millions of people.

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