Washington Post: With impressive patience, the World Health Organization is carefully following the progress of H5N1 avian flu, the virus that has now killed more than 50 people in Asia. Scientists tracking the virus have recently observed that fewer people who contract the disease die immediately. They've also found that some who test positive for the virus show no symptoms. Paradoxically, these changes could mean the disease has become more dangerous: The virus may be mutating, acquiring characteristics that help it spread faster.
The cooperation behind this international tracking system is unprecedented: Even North Korea posted a report this week on a strain of bird flu its scientists said they had contained. But while this may well be the first time in history that scientists have managed to observe the birth of a flu pandemic, there is still no international agreement about what preventive measures should be taken.
Only the United States has invested in new, tissue-based vaccine technology, which could be used to develop a vaccine quickly in case the virus does begin to spread. Research, though, is still in the early stages -- and in the meantime, the United States has fallen behind other countries in stockpiling the one other known antidote, the antiviral oseltamivir, commercially known as Tamiflu.
While Tamiflu won't cure or halt the spread of bird flu, recent research shows that it can ease some of the symptoms and might slow the spread. For the drug to be effective, however, large numbers of people will have to take it every day -- meaning that Tamiflu will need to be on hand in almost unthinkably large quantities. Toward that end, a number of countries, including Australia and Japan, have decided to stockpile the drug. To date, the United States has acquired about 2.3 million courses, which would cover a small proportion of its population. Given that international supplies of the drug will vanish if a pandemic begins, this seems extraordinarily imprudent.