November 17, 2005

US bird flu funds stall as virus spreads in China

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - World health experts said they expected
to see more human bird flu infections in China, even as the
U.S. Congress stalled funding of President George W. Bush's
plan to cope with a pandemic.

China confirmed its first human deaths from the H5N1 avian
flu virus, saying one person in Anhui province had died and
another in Hunan province was suspected of having been killed
by the H5N1 strain. A second person diagnosed with bird flu in
Hunan had recovered.

World Health Organization officials said the development
was not unexpected and did not necessarily mean a human
pandemic was about to break out.

"In view of the size of the country, and the size of its
bird and human population, we are not surprised," World Health
Organization Director General Lee Jong-Wook told a news
conference in Rome.

"We expect there will be more poultry outbreaks to come,"
Henk Bekedam, WHO's chief official in Beijing, told reporters,
noting that the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu flourishes in
autumn and winter months.

"As long as there are poultry outbreaks, people will be
exposed to the virus and we can expect that people might get

Indonesia also announced two more deaths on Thursday,
bringing the total to seven, the Health Ministry said Thursday.
Four others have survived.

WHO has urged all countries to come up with plans for
tackling a pandemic of bird flu, but U.S. efforts stalled on
Thursday when Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives
refused to approve funding for Bush's $7.1 billion plan.

After days of intensive talks between the House and Senate,
negotiators dropped a plan for $8 billion in funds that
Democrats pushed through the Senate last month.

Conservative Republicans in the House insisted that an
emergency U.S. effort to stockpile vaccines and anti-viral
drugs that could be effective against the deadly flu would have
to be paid for by cutting other government programs.

Republican leaders in the House said that instead of
attaching the bird flu money to a health and labor spending
bill moving through Congress, they would try separate
legislation later this year or early next year.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has become entrenched in flocks
of poultry in several Asian countries. Chinese officials
battling several outbreaks have promised to vaccinate billions
of chickens to try to control its spread.

The virus cannot yet easily infect people, but it has
sickened 130 people in five countries in Asia, killing 67 since
late 2003.

The fear is that it will acquire the ability to pass from
person to person, causing a pandemic that could kill millions.


China gave blanket coverage to its first human cases of
bird flu Thursday. Newspapers carried pictures of distraught
relatives of the victims, a contrast to two years ago when
China tried to cover up outbreaks of severe acute respiratory
syndrome or SARS.

SARS spread as far afield as Toronto, carried by airline
passengers, and sickened 8,000 people globally, killing 800,
before it was contained.

"In 2003, we defeated SARS. That will inspire us to victory
over bird flu," Xinhua news agency quoted Premier Wen Jiabao as

"China has been a model of how we hope countries will react
to a situation like this in the future," WHO spokeswoman Maria
Cheng told Reuters in Geneva.

"They had a very uncertain situation but went ahead with
increased transparency. That is exactly the kind of mentality
we need if we are going to detect a pandemic in the early
stages," Cheng said.

Analysts are trying to find opportunities for investors if
a pandemic emerges.

Likely losers in a pandemic would include airlines, hotels,
insurers and luxury goods makers, while potential winners
include drug makers, hospital chains and home entertainment
companies, according to a global Citigroup study released on

(Additional reporting by Ade Rina in Jakarta, Maggie Fox
and Richard Cowan in Washington, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva,
Kim Coghill in Hong Kong, Nick Zieminski in New York and Judy
Hua in Beijing)