The bird flu virus that killed 34 people in South-East Asia last year is not easily transmitted from person to person. But if it were to exchange genes with a mammalian flu virus, we could witness a global flu pandemic, which would threaten the lives of tens of millions of people.
Yet, argues an editorial in this week's Nature, governments continue to ignore the threat. Surveillance in Asia is insufficient to monitor the progress of the virus. Moreover, governments around the world are unprepared to handle a viral pandemic of any kind.
Rich governments are not inclined to help poor countries monitor animal viruses because they see it as a form of economic assistance. In this, they ignore the global threat posed by these viruses.
Furthermore, few rich countries have stockpiled flu drugs or made any effort to increase the infrastructure to enable them to produce the volume of drugs and vaccine doses that will be needed should a pandemic occur.
The World Health Organization has stated that the world is not prepared for the next pandemic, whatever its scale. Nature calls the state of global inaction on this issue "scandalous".
Reference: Nature 433, 91 (2005)