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Smuggling a threat to carry bird flu to US, specialist says

Says migratory birds are not a concern this year

SINGAPORE -- A top bird flu specialist predicted yesterday that the H5N1 virus will not reach the United States this year via migratory birds, and warned bird smuggling poses a bigger threat for transmitting the deadly disease.

Robert G. Webster, a virologist at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, said the virus will eventually arrive in the United States, possibly carried by infected birds illegally brought into the country.

''While wildlife people in the United States are watching for the appearance of this virus, I would suspect that it may not come this year," he said, adding it has been rare for bird flu viruses to reach the Americas from Europe.

''If it doesn't come this year, don't relax, because it will eventually come," said Webster, in Singapore for a two-day conference that is expected to draw leading bird flu experts.

The H5N1 virus began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003 and has killed at least 113 people worldwide. Most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.

Experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that easily spreads from person to person, potentially sparking a global pandemic.

Webster said he is most concerned about H5N1 becoming established in the world's wild bird populations because most highly pathogenic bird flu viruses usually do not last long in nature. They typically start in wild birds, infect domestic birds and eventually die out.

''This one has broken the rules and gone back from the domestics into the wild birds. Is it going to be perpetuated there as a killer? That's the million-dollar question," he said.

Webster's laboratory has been conducting animal research to help predict how much of the anti-bird flu drug, Tamiflu, people would need to take and for how long if a pandemic strain emerges, said David Reddy, Tamiflu task force leader for the Swiss-based drug maker Roche Holding AG.

'''What we can do is construct models so as soon as a pandemic strain arises, we can very rapidly determine what the best approach is with the drug," he said.

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