Brussels, 13 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kyprianou confirmed the worst fears of EU governments today in Brussels when he announced that the recent instances of bird flu detected in Turkey belong to the most lethal strain of the disease known so far.
"We have received now confirmation that the virus found in Turkey is an avian flu H5N1 high-pathogenic virus," Kyprianou said. "Based on the results of the community [that is, EU] reference laboratory which is the one that did the final test, it indicates a direct relationship with the viruses recently found in Russia, Mongolia, and China."
In Romania, where initial testing of suspect farm fowl had shown the samples to be unaffected, a second round of testing also revealed the presence of avian influenza. Kyprianou said that although the precise strain of the virus has yet to be established, the EU will want to err on the side of caution and expect the worst.
"In Turkey [the virus discovered] is the H5N1," Kyprianou said. "Of course there is the possibility of the Romanian strain being a different one. This is possible. But at this point, given that the H5N1 [strain] is the most aggressive one we know, we will work today in the committee [of EU food chain experts] on the assumption that this is also the case in Romania."
EU food chain experts meeting today were expected to announce a ban on all poultry imports from Romania. Such a ban is already in place against Turkey. EU experts have traveled to both countries to assist the authorities in preventing further outbreaks. Travelers to Turkey and Romania are warned to be vigilant.
"It's true that scientists caution and warn us that there will be a pandemic, based on various assumptions, and if there is one worldwide there will be a very large number of deaths. Of course deaths depend on the preparedness, on the level of health care services, on the access the citizens have to health care services, and how quickly we can respond."
EU health ministers, meeting informally in Britain next week, will discuss longer-term responses. Poultry farmers are already being advised to take precautionary measures. The EU is likely to recommend that domestic birds be locked indoors to avoid contact with migratory wildfowl.
Kyprianou today said the EU now assumes that migrating birds are capable of spreading the virus. It was previously thought that infected birds might succumb too fast to be able to carry it far.
The EU's health commissioner said he wants to avoid panic among poultry farmers and the general public at large.
However, he conceded that the possibility of the H5N1 -- or any other strain of avian influenza -- mutating into a human-transmissible virus is very real. Kyprianou said that in such a case the mortality rate could be expected to be very high.
"It's true that scientists caution and warn us that there will be a pandemic, based on various assumptions, and if there is one worldwide there will be a very large number of deaths," Kyprianou said. "Of course deaths depend on the preparedness, on the level of health care services, on the access the citizens have to health care services, and how quickly we can respond."
EU member states, as well as the European Commission, have developed "preparedness plans" for the possible outbreak of a human pandemic. The plans will be tested in late November.
The 1918-19 outbreak of what was dubbed the "Spanish flu," which killed 50 million people worldwide, has recently been shown to have probably originated from a strain of bird flu.
Kyprianou noted today that the main worry in preparing for a human pandemic is that before the mutation has occurred, no vaccines can be developed.
"There's no vaccine because there is no virus," Kyprianou said. "The virus [that] exists affects birds -- [meaning] this virus that has killed some 60, I think, people in Southeast Asia. But this is not the virus we are concerned [about]. The one we're afraid of, I should say, is if the virus mutates -- or any other [strain] mutates -- to become a human-to-human transmission [type]. The people who were affected in Southeast Asia, the evidence shows that that was through contact with birds."
The commissioner said that in case of a pandemic, the EU is prepared to short-circuit the normal approval procedure for vaccines, which could take up to eight months. He said this should become a matter of weeks.
He said EU member states are told to stockpile antiviral drugs. Also people more likely to succumb to influenza are advised to vaccinate themselves against the seasonal, ordinary varieties of the disease to increase their chances of survival.See also:
Global Response Against Possible Bird Flu Pandemic Gathering Force