World Health Organisation chief Lee Jong-wook says a human pandemic will come and the world needs to be ready.
“We currently do not have a vaccine that we know will be effective. Nor is there sufficient manufacturing capacity at present,” he said. “There are no immediate and easy solutions to these issues. We are working with member states and industry on these problems.”
European Union ministers are meeting twice this week to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told journalists: “What we are doing is monitoring constantly, very rigorously, the situation and so far we are happy that all the measures we have supported have the full backing of member states.
“We have urged the member states to apply the maximum rigour, maximum objectiveness, to be open and transparent to the Commission.”
The danger is that the H5N1 virus will mutate into a form that can be transmitted between humans. A vaccine against such a virus can only be developed after the event.
Professor Patrick Goubau from the University of Louvain la Neuve in Belgium explained how such a mutant virus could come about.
He said if a human already suffering from flu catches bird flu then the two strains of the virus could combine, because they both contain chromosomes that could mix.
If that happens, the resulting virus will be one that can quickly spread from person to person. Then, says the professor, a process of natural selection could occur.
The WHO wants drug companies to prepare for the mass production of a vaccine as soon as a human-to-human bird flu appears.