SHANGHAI/HONG KONG, April 5 (Reuters) - Chinese authorities
slaughtered over 20,000 birds at a poultry market in Shanghai on
Friday as the death toll from a new strain of bird flu mounted
to six, spreading concern overseas and sparking a sell-off in
airline shares in Europe and Hong Kong.
The local government in Shanghai said the Huhuai market for
live birds had been shut down and 20,536 birds had been culled
after authorities detected the H7N9 virus from samples of
pigeons in the market. Other live poultry markets in the city
will be closed down from Saturday, it said.
China's eastern Jiangsu province said two new H7N9 bird flu
cases have been confirmed on Friday, bringing the total number
of reported infections nationwide to 16.
At least four of the dead are in Shanghai, a city of 23
million people and the showpiece of China's vibrant economy.
The latest death was of a 64-year-old man in Zhejiang
province, state news agency Xinhua said on Friday, adding that
none of the 55 people who had close contact with him had shown
symptoms of infection.
Shanghai authorities stressed the H7N9 virus remained
responsive to the drug Tamiflu and those who were diagnosed
early could be cured.
"We currently have enough reserves of Tamiflu to meet with
the current outbreak," Wu Fan, director of the Shanghai Center
for Disease Control & Prevention, told a news conference.
Tamiflu is made by Roche Holding AG.
Airline shares tumbled in European markets on fears the
outbreak could become widespread. The STOXX Europe 600 travel
and leisure sector index fell by 3.5 percent.
In Hong Kong, the overall index closed at a four-month low,
led by falls in airline shares over fears of diminished demand
for air travel. Air China slumped 9.8 percent, its
worst single-day loss in nearly four years.
In Shanghai, the rising death toll prompted some residents
to stay away from markets with live chickens and ducks.
"I'm only getting my groceries at the large supermarkets now
because I don't think it is safe to visit the wet markets
anymore," said 38-year-old Shao Linxia, adding she had also
stopped buying poultry since news of the bird flu surfaced.
"We all remember SARS and how quickly it could spread, so we
are obviously worried."
SHADOW OF SARS
The 2002-2003 epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
(SARS) started in China and killed about one-tenth of the 8,000
Still, there were few signs of panic in Shanghai with shops
remaining open, and the strain does not appear to be transmitted
from human to human.
"We have 14 cases in a large geographical area, we have no
sign of any epidemiological linkage between the confirmed cases
and we have no sign of sustained human-to-human transmission,"
said World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl before
the two new cases were confirmed.
"The 400 contacts are being followed up to see if any of
them do have the virus, have had it from someone else," he told
a news briefing in Geneva.
But Hong Kong authorities were taking extra precautions.
Additional staff would be deployed at immigration points to
make random temperature checks of visitors in addition to the
infrared full-body scanners already in place, Ko Wing-man, Hong
Kong's food and health secretary, told reporters.
Vietnam banned imports of Chinese poultry.
In Japan, airports have put up posters at entry points
warning all passengers from China to seek medical attention if
they have flu-like symptoms.
In the United States, the White House said it was monitoring
the situation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
said it had started work on a vaccine if it was needed. It would
take five to six months to begin commercial production.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates
medicines, said it was working closely with international and
national health authorities.
"As part of the larger (U.S.) government response, FDA would
also work with drug and vaccine developers to expedite
development and availability of any potentially effective
vaccines," a spokeswoman said.
With the fear that a SARS-like epidemic could re-emerge,
China said it was pulling out the stops to combat the virus.
"(China) will strengthen its leadership in combating the
virus ... and coordinate and deploy the entire nation's health
system to combat the virus," the Health Ministry said in a
statement on its website (www.moh.gov.cn).
WHO CENTRES ANALYSING SAMPLES
The virus has been shared with WHO collaborating centres in
Atlanta, Beijing, London, Melbourne and Tokyo, and these groups
are analysing samples to identify the best candidate to be used
for the manufacture of vaccine - if it becomes necessary.
Any decision to mass-produce vaccines against H7N9 flu will
not be taken lightly, since it will mean sacrificing production
of seasonal shots.
That could mean shortages of vaccine against the normal
seasonal flu which, while not serious for most people, still
costs thousands of lives.
Sanofi Pasteur, the world's largest flu vaccine
manufacturer, said it was in continuous contact with the WHO
through the International Federation of Pharmaceutical
Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), but it was too soon to
know the significance of the Chinese cases.
Other leading flu vaccine makers include GlaxoSmithKline
A spokesman for Swiss drugmaker Novartis said the firm was
closely monitoring the virus and had begun initial preparations
for developing a vaccine should one become necessary.
Preliminary test results suggest the new flu strain responds
to treatment with Roche's Tamiflu and GSK's Relenza, according
to the WHO.
Experts said more needed to done to determine the level of
risk from the bird flu strain.
"H7s are viruses that mutate often so it could disappear as
a result of mutation or it could become much more aggressive, so
it is important to study every one of the viruses that we
isolate in humans and in animals," Alex Thiermann, special
advisor to the World Animal Health Organisation's (OIE) director
general, told Reuters.