As Europe panics, global co-operation urged in the fight against birdflu

As the panic about bird flu spreads across Europe, EU foreign ministers are urging global cooperation in efforts to tackle the threat of the deadly virus.

The action follows the revelation that Greece has possibly become the first EU member country to have the H5N1 strain of the virus.

Fierce international pressure on the Swiss drugmaker Roche to increase it's production of the antiviral flu drug Tamiflu, has forced the company to consider allowing rival firms and governments to produce it under licence for emergency pandemic use. GlaxoSmithKline is also ramping up production of its product Relenza, widely thought to be the lead candidate in the fight against avian influenza.

In an effort to calm the situation British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, chairing an emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said the discovery of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in Turkey and Romania was no cause for panic.

He reiterated that to date there is no evidence of any transfer of the virus to human beings.

Straw says he understands the public concern and believes that will be allayed if European Union and member states demonstrate there is effective coordinated action taking place.

EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou, coordinating the 25-nation bloc's response to avian flu, said Brussels did not yet know whether the virus detected in a bird on the Aegean island of Chios was the deadly strain.

Greece has nevertheless introduced precautionary measures, banning exports of living poultry, meat and other poultry products from the island to EU member states and third countries.

The fear on the part of the scientific community is that if the H5N1 virus passes from birds to humans on a large scale it could mutate into a variety that could spread easily between humans.

In a virulent form, they say, this could kill millions worldwide.

The virus has killed more than 60 people in Asia since it first appeared there in 1997.

The foreign ministers say in a statement that the EU can not act effectively on its own in tackling a threat that could move so quickly across countries and continents.

They recognise avian and pandemic influenza as global threats and are calling for an international coordinated response.

The global nature of the threat is evident as the pharmaceutical industry, in an attempt to cover a shortfall in anti-viral agents that could help combat the virus, is offering closer collaboration within the industry.

Drug company Roche is apparently prepared to discuss granting a production licence for Tamiflu to rival firms including Indian generic drug maker Cipla.

David Reddy for Roche says however the firm had not as yet been approached by Cipla, which has said it could make a copy-cat version to help governments build stocks.

Dutch company Akzo Nobel NV said it was working on a human vaccine and would begin clinical trials next year.

But scientists continue to stress that development is difficult before the exact architecture of a mutated virus is known.

It seems that more than a half of EU states have placed orders for anti-viral flu drugs.

The World Health Organisation has again expressed the fear that panic in Europe will only serve to distract attention from what is the epicentre of the danger in southeast Asia.

In contrast to Europe, people in Asia often live close to poultry and are exposed to a far greater threat.

Meanwhile Romania says it has detected new cases of suspected bird flu in the Danube delta, one of them close to the border with Ukraine, and tests are currently being carried out to see whether it is the H5 virus, of which H5N1 is a deadly sub-strain.

Turkish authorities are also examining the remains of some 500 quails found in a field in the west of the country.

At present however, Greece is the main focus of attention and residents on the Greek island where the suspect bird was discovered have found themselves the centre of a media circus.

The farmer who raised the initial alarm after seeing turkeys fall ill says he fears for the island.

In the wider picture, aside from the human danger, countries visited by bird flu in its various forms may have to deal with grave economic losses.

When the less virulent H5N7 strain hit the Netherlands in 2003, prompting slaughter of 30 million birds losses estimated at 500 million euros were incurred.

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