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Asia to beef up vaccine supply

ASIAN countries will increase stockpiles of medicine to fight the swine flu virus and look at ways to share essential supplies in the event of an emergency, according to a statement drafted for a regional summit yesterday.

Health ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea will intensify cross-border cooperation and establish joint response teams to fight the spread of the H1N1 virus.

According to the statement, the ministers meeting in Bangkok were concerned that most of the production capacity for vaccines was located in North America and Europe and that it was inadequate for a global pandemic.

Asia has no capacity to make vaccines at the moment.

"Despite other regions having begun to acquire the technology to produce influenza vaccines, access to effective pandemic vaccines is a major problem in the region," the statement said, calling for the transfer of technology to make vaccines and antiviral medicine.

Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu told reporters the government was pressing drug companies in China to increase the existing "quite small" national antiviral stockpile but admitted it was a tall order to provide enough in a country of 1.3 billion people.

"Our objective is a stockpile for eventually 1 percent of the population. One percent is already quite huge," he said.

The 13 countries will look at screening people leaving affected areas but are not planning travel bans.

Evidence showed that "imposing travel restrictions would have very little effect on stopping the virus from spreading but would be highly disruptive to the global and regional communities and pose major negative effects on the current global economic downturn", the statement said.

Margaret Chan, chief of the World Health Organization, told the meeting that Asian governments had to stay vigilant but urged them to "refrain from introducing economically and socially destructive measures that lack solid scientific backing and bring no clear benefit."

"The rational use of travel- and trade-related measures is always wise at a time of severe economic downturn," she said.

Asia has experienced far fewer confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus, which has killed 45 people in Mexico and two in the United States, and spread across Europe. But, after the damage wrought by SARS and bird flu in recent years, Asian countries are taking no chances.


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