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WHO chief says worst may not be over for flu

THE World Health Organization warned yesterday against a false sense of security from the waning and apparently mild outbreaks of swine flu, saying the worst may not be over.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said great uncertainty remained about the new strain that continues to spread and could pose significant threats in Southeast Asia.

But she could not say whether or when the United Nations agency might raise its pandemic alert to the highest level from the current 5 on a scale of 6. The trigger would be if sustained spread was confirmed in communities outside North America.

"Actually, I am asking myself that question every day," Chan said.

"We are meeting at a time of crisis that could have global implications," she warned the intergovernmental meeting on pandemic influenza preparedness at WHO's Geneva headquarters. "This is a virus so evasive that it can quietly and stealthily move into your country without you even realizing it."

The two-day meeting is tackling the sensitive issue of virus sharing in exchange for access to any vaccines derived. At the height of fears about bird flu, Indonesia refused to share H5N1 virus samples without guarantees the vaccines would be provided to poorer countries at an affordable price.

The negotiations, begun in November 2007, have taken on fresh urgency with the emergence of the H1N1 virus.

If negotiators reach a draft agreement, it would be brought to the WHO's annual assembly of health ministers, who meet in Geneva next week, for possible adoption.

GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, Baxter International and other drug makers are awaiting WHO guidance about whether to start mass-producing vaccines to fight H1N1, which may force them to cut production of seasonal flu shots.

Glaxo said yesterday it had received orders from several governments, including Britain, France, Belgium and Finland, looking to stockpile a pandemic vaccine against the new virus.

Chan said she would make a recommendation soon about the appropriate balance between making the two types of injections.

She commended countries with H1N1 infections for their timely sharing of samples for risk assessment and making seed vaccine, saying the starting point for larger production of injections could be ready by the end of this month.

According to the latest WHO count, some 7,520 people in 34 countries have been infected with the strain that is a genetic mixture of swine, bird and human viruses.

Mexico has confirmed two more deaths from swine flu, bringing the death toll to 66. The virus has also killed four people in the US, one in Canada and one in Costa Rica.


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