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A global initiative to prepare nations worldwide for an expected global flu epidemic got underway today with the launch of the Pandemic Preparedness Project.

The initiative is the inaugural project of the UK Royal Institution's World Science Assembly, also called RiSci.

It intends to bring together scientists, senior policymakers and politicians so that they can better prepare for the next flu pandemic, which many experts, including those of the World Health Organization, predict will result from the current bird flu epidemics in South-East Asia.

The journal Nature and the policy magazine Foreign Affairs have joined RiSci in support of the project. Their contributions will be to raise awareness of the issues by publishing special reports on bird flu.

In the first of these, published in Nature today, leading scientists warn that we are in a race against time to prepare for a global flu epidemic and that current efforts lack both funding and coordination (see Time to prepare for bird flu pandemic 'running out').

Nelson Gonzalez, director of RiSci, says one of the major concerns is making sure that governments outside Asia, Europe and North America are prepared for an eventual pandemic.

"Some national governments are putting together decent preparations, but that is six to twelve countries at most," says Gonzalez, referring to vaccine research and drug stockpiling that is underway in North America and Europe.

In contrast, countries in Africa and South America appear to be very poorly prepared, says Gonzalez.

He says the project organisers are currently in discussions with senior officials in science ministries, heads of governments and national disease control agencies, to create regional preparedness strategies on those two continents.

These plans will include procedures for effective communication between relevant agencies and between governments and their populations, as well as strategies for moving goods, medicines and people quickly and effectively.

We are dealing with a "weakest link phenomenon", said Gonzalez. "It doesn't matter how prepared you are if your neighbour is unprepared."

The initiative will not distribute funds. "Our responsibility is to catalyse the interest, momentum and partnerships that need to happen," explains Gonzalez. "We feel the science has done a really good job of determining what the needs are. What is lacking is the political will."

But, he adds, "we are in conversation with global funders who are very, very interested in supporting what comes out of [the initiative]."

The Pandemic Preparedness Project has gathered a steering committee, chaired by Rita Colwell, former director of the US National Science Foundation, and including Klaus Stöhr, coordinator for the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Programme.

Commenting on the absence of representatives from South-East Asia, where epidemics are currently occurring, Gonzalez said they are waiting for replies to invitations to representatives in the region to join the steering committee.

Bird flu is caused by a virus, H5N1, now believed to be widespread in poultry in parts of South-East Asia. It has killed 21 people in the region since December 2004, and 53 in total since December 2003.

Although the virus does not easily jump from human to human, it kills about half of the people it infects, and some researchers say it is only a matter of time before the virus becomes able to spread from person to person.

There were three flu pandemics in the 20th century and experts say the next one is overdue. The 1918 pandemic killed 20 million people. The 1957 and 1968 pandemics were 'mild' in comparison, each claiming one million lives.

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