BANGKOK - Asian countries agreed on Friday to boost drug stockpiles, share essential supplies and tighten surveillance against an H1N1 flu virus that posed an imminent health threat to the region.
Health ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan and South Korea also agreed to set up a red alert hotline and rapid response teams to fight the spread of the virus, also known as swine flu.
Despite the small number of confirmed cases in Asia compared to Mexico -- the epicenter of the H1N1 outbreak -- the United States and Europe, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan warned against complacency.
We cannot afford to let our guard down. A pandemic remains a formidable challenge to the region, Surin told the meeting.
In their joint statement, the ministers noted that most of the production capacity for vaccines was located in North America and Europe, and it was inadequate for a global pandemic.
Despite other regions having begun to acquire the technology to produce influenza vaccines, access to effective pandemic vaccines is a major problem in the region, the group said, calling for technology transfers to allow the region to produce its own medicines.
SMALL ANTIVIRAL STOCKPILE
Most of the world's flu vaccine factories, which produce 350 million doses annually, are located in advanced countries. They can ramp up production to 500 million doses, but that is hardly enough for a global population of more than 6 billion.
Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said China's drug companies were under pressure to increase the existing quite small national antiviral stockpile. But he admitted it was a tall order to provide enough in a country of 1.3 billion people.
Our objective is a stockpile for eventually one percent of the population. One percent is already quite huge, he said.
ASEAN has a stockpile of 500,000 courses of antiviral drugs in Singapore, and another 500,000 among its member states. It agreed to boost those supplies when needed.
The group also has 750,000 personal protection kits ready to be shipped when a red alert is declared, Surin said.
Asia has far fewer confirmed cases of H1N1, which has killed 44 people in Mexico and two in the United States, and spread across Europe.
However, after the damage wrought by SARS and bird flu in recent years, Asian countries are taking no chances this time.
The group agreed to consider exit screening of people leaving affected areas, but opposed travel restrictions.
Curbing travel would be highly disruptive to the global and regional communities and pose major negative impacts on the current global economic downturn, the statement said.
But Zhu defended China's quarantine of passengers on a flight from Mexico, lifted on Thursday after one week.
At this time, we think this -kind of precaution and measures are still necessary, but things may change according to the analysis of the WHO and our experts, he told reporters.
More than 2,000 people in 24 countries have been infected with the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has kept its pandemic alert level at 5, below a high of 6.
The alert system received a mild rebuke in Bangkok, where ministers urged the WHO to consider the severity of the threat to human health as well as the regional spread of the virus before issuing a revision.
ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and the Philippines.