Western European governments scrambled to buy industrial quantities of flu vaccines and face masks to protect citizens from possible infection.

EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said on Tuesday most of the 25 EU governments lack sufficient stocks of anti-viral drugs designed to boost resistance to the common flu of such risk groups as the elderly, the young, diabetics and others.

He said the EU was working on a deal with the pharmaceutical industry whereby EU governments will "increase vaccination for seasonal flu ... and the industry will invest more to build up manufacturing capacity."

"We have not reached the level of (vaccination) preparedness that we should have," Kyprianou said after updating the EU foreign ministers on the westward spreading of bird flu.

The EU was investigating a possible outbreak in Greece of the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed 60 people in Asia. The H5N1 strain has been confirmed in Turkey and Romania

Highly contagious

Macedonian authorities said they will quarantine a small southern village, cull 10,000 chickens and send a sample from a dead chicken to Britain for bird flu testing following an outbreak of a highly contagious but common bird disease.

Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG, meanwhile, is building a new plant in the US to boost production of its Tamiflu anti-viral drug amid fears about bird flu, and is ready to seek help from other companies to meet surging demand, the company said on Tuesday.

Jack Straw says the EU has a
duty to reassure public opinion

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the EU has a duty to reassure public opinion.

"Members of the public are bound to be concerned," he said after chairing an emergency EU foreign ministers meeting, adding that every effort must be made to show that there is a coordinated response to an outbreak.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said although the arrival of the virus in a new location is worrying - because more virus means more opportunities for genetic mutations - it does not mean a human flu pandemic is closer.

Isolated outbreaks that are swiftly controlled pose a minor threat compared with prolonged outbreaks where birds continue to mix with people, as in Asia.

Flu preparedness

The EU health ministers, meeting on Thursday and Friday outside London, will discuss national flu preparedness programs, including the availability of anti-viral drugs across western Europe.

After meeting with the EU foreign ministers, Kyprianou said the EU will shortly stage a "command post exercise" to test national preparedness plans.

"This is a global threat. We cannot protect ourselves alone"

Markos Kyprianou,
EU Health Commissioner

"This is a global threat," Kyprianou said. "We cannot protect ourselves alone. There is a need for international action and international solidarity with countries in Asia."

The H5N1 bird flu strain has swept poultry populations in large swathes of Asia since 2003, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds.

There is no human vaccine for the current strain of bird flu, but scientists believe the Tamiflu drug may help humans fight bird flu contraction.

Migrating birds

Bird flu's westward move is caused by migrating wild fowl. It has intensified fears in Europe the virus may mutate into one that can be easily transmitted among humans - a development that experts fear could provoke a global epidemic that puts millions of lives at risk.

The EU stepped up bio-security measures and installed early detection systems along the migratory paths of birds to prevent contamination of domestic flocks.  

French hospitals have ordered
50 million masks 

The EU foreign ministers stressed the need for the EU to coordinate any efforts to stamp out bird flu in consultation with specialised UN organisations.

European officials say EU member nations, as well as Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, have only 10 million doses now for an area of almost 500 million people, and will have only 46 million doses by the end of 2007.

Stockpiling vaccines is difficult as flu viruses can mutate quickly.

Fifty million masks to protect against bird flu are being delivered to French hospitals with 200 million to be available by the beginning of 2006, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said.

Medication shortfall

Villepin told lawmakers that by year's end France would have enough anti-viral medication to treat 14 million people.

The Spanish government will order six million to 11 million doses of anti-viral medicines to prepare for the possibility of a flu epidemic, the Spanish Health Ministry said, giving it enough medication to treat between 15 and 25% of the population of 40 million.

The Cypriot government announced on Tuesday it will order another 20,000 vaccines as a precaution against bird flu and urged the public to remain calm.