By Kerry Capell It's highly infectious, and it's spreading across Europe. The predicted avian influenza pandemic has yet to arrive, but the Continent is suffering from a bad case of bird-flu panic. And the confirmation on Oct. 24 that a parrot held in quarantine in Britain died from the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu -- which has killed millions of birds and 61 people in Asia -- has only intensified the public's fear.
Most avian influenza viruses don't infect humans, but the H5N1 strain of bird flu can be passed directly from birds to people. The fear is H5N1 will mutate into a new virus that is easily transferable from human to human (see BW Online, 10/9/05, "Avian Flu Under the Microscope").
PLUNGING POULTRY SALES. Even before the case emerged in Britain, the mood in Europe was one of mounting hysteria. "Bird Flu Will Hit Britain and Kill 50,000" Britain's Daily Mail newspaper screeched in a recent headline. Pharmacies across Europe are selling out of Tamiflu, the prescription antiviral shown to be most effective against the disease. Online auction site eBay (EBAY) even pulled an auction for the drug after bidding for a single course of treatment hit $180 in Britain (see BW Online, 10/20/05, "Two Stocks Lifted by Bird Flu").
William Burns, the head of Switzerland's Roche Pharmaceuticals (RHHBY), which makes Tamiflu, summed up the mood on an Oct. 19 conference call when he noted: "Following four ducks in Romania carrying avian flu, Europe has gone mad".
And how. Poultry sales have plummeted by 20% to 40% across Europe, leading some supermarkets such as Britain's Asda (a subsidiary of Wal-Mart (WMT)) to launch marketing campaigns assuring customers their poultry is safe to eat. Chickens are under house arrest in Germany and the Netherlands. And Britain is calling for a centralized poultry database to help avert any potential outbreaks.
TV DINNERS. Sniffer dogs check passengers from Romania and Turkey as they arrive at Heathrow to detect banned meat, live or dead birds, feathers, and eggs in passenger luggage -- even though you can't get bird flu from eating chicken or eggs. Italy has banned imports of live poultry from Croatia, Romania, and other Balkan countries. Poland has outlawed live bird markets and pigeon races.
In an effort to reassure the public (and boost falling poultry sales), both Greek Health Minister Nikitas Kaklamanis and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan separately tucked into chicken dishes on live television. And newspapers across Europe have taken to printing detailed maps tracing bird-migration routes.
Sensing the rising public fear, the European Union has called emergency meetings on avian flu. Describing the virus strain as a serious, global health threat if it shifts from birds to people and one "that requires a coordinated international reaction," the EU has called on national governments to step up preparations in the event of a pandemic. In the meantime, it urges the public to stay calm. "I don't think we have to enter into panic," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said at a press conference.
FLYING TRANSMISSION. Too late. Europe first went into a state of alert three weeks ago, after the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was confirmed outside the EU's borders in Russia, Romania, and Turkey. Although cases of bird flu have been reported in Greece and Croatia, tests are still pending to see if it's the more aggressive H5N1 strain.
The parrot found in Britain was part of a shipment of 148 birds imported from South America that were held in a quarantine unit at Heathrow Airport with 216 exotic birds from Taiwan. According to a spokesperson from Britain's Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Dept., it's possible the parrot contracted the virus by "sharing air space" with the Taiwanese birds. Following the discovery, European ministers were meeting in Brussels on Oct. 25 to discuss a one-month ban on all imports of live captive birds.
The EU already has taken some steps to avert the spread of avian flu. It has banned imports of poultry meat, untreated poultry meat products, and live birds from countries affected by H5N1. And it has set up early detection systems along the migratory paths of birds to prevent the possible contamination of domestic flocks (see BW Online, 10/6/05,"'Eerie' Discoveries about Flu").
DRUG SHORTAGE. Moreover, the EU plans to hold a two-day influenza pandemic preparedness exercise later this year. The simulation of human influenza outbreak will focus on collecting and comparing surveillance information across 25 member states. EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou also proposed setting aside $1.2 billion to purchase antiviral drugs and vaccines in the event of a pandemic.
Despite all the attention and action, there are signs that Europe is still ill-prepared for a possible pandemic. The World Health Organization recommends governments keep stocks of antiviral drugs and regular human flu vaccines to inoculate at least 25% of their populations. Yet Kyprianou concedes that "more than half" of the 25 EU governments lack sufficient stocks of antiviral drugs. European officials say the 25 nations in the EU, as well as Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein, have only 10 million doses of antivirals now for an area of almost 500 million people and will have only 46 million doses by the end of 2007.
Among the best-prepared countries are Britain and France. The British government has so far stockpiled 2.5 million courses of antiviral drugs and has ordered a total of 14.6 million, enough to treat roughly 25% of the population. In addition, Britain's Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, announced plans to purchase enough vaccines to cover every person in Britain should a pandemic take hold.
PANIC PANDEMIC. Although a vaccine can't be developed until the exact strain of the flu is known, the government has invited drug manufacturers to bid for contracts to supply the potential vaccine. By offering advance contracts, Donaldson believes manufacturers will be able to ramp up sufficient production capacity before a pandemic strikes. France also has stockpiled enough Tamiflu to cover 24% of its population and has ordered 200 million face masks.
The newly created European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control stresses that right now the risk to public health is minimal. But with demand for antivirals exceeding supply and a poor public understanding of the disease and how it's spread, the pandemic of panic may be just beginning.
Capell is a senior correspondent with BusinessWeek in London