WHO looks set to raise pandemic threat level

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization looked set to raise its pandemic alert level on Monday to phase 4 or even to phase 5 -- indicating a deadly swine flu was spreading significantly among humans.

A family arriving from Mexico wear masks at Sao Paulo's international airport April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Experts held four hours of emergency talks, brought forward from Tuesday, on whether to raise the alert level, indicating the gravity of the outbreak, which was confirmed earlier on Monday to have spread to Britain and Spain from North America.

“The experts have just adjourned. Expect a news conference in 90 minutes,” a WHO spokeswoman told Reuters.

A WHO spokesman said a teleconference was now likely at about 2000 GMT.

Going to phase 4 on the WHO’s 6-point scale would mean the WHO believes that a potential pandemic virus has shown it could transmit easily from person to person.

Moving it directly to phase 5 would indicate that the disease was already spreading significantly among humans.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, speaking earlier at a teleconference as the experts were still meeting, also said work to produce a vaccine against the virus had begun.

Hartl said the disease, confirmed in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Spain and Britain, had gone beyond one single location, enough to raise the alert beyond phase 4.

But more information was needed to see how the disease was spreading, for instance whether cases in other countries had been imported from Mexico, he said.

“I think there will be judgments made because of that whether phase 4 or 5 is appropriate,” Hartl said.

It was possible the experts would decide it was too soon to raise the level from phase 3, where it was set in 2005 when the WHO introduced the system to monitor bird flu, he said. The pandemic alert level has never before been raised.

“The fact that we have called this meeting a day early would certainly seem to indicate that this is an event and an evolving situation that needs to be addressed urgently,” he said.

Hartl said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had taken a sample of the H1N1 virus causing the disease, produced a vaccine virus strain and was now growing it in eggs, the first stage in a vaccine production process.

“We certainly know that the work has begun to produce a vaccine,” Hartl said, adding that it would typically be 5-6 months from this initial development before a vaccine was commercially available.

The number of confirmed cases is changing rapidly as more information comes in. Hartl said the WHO now counted 40 confirmed swine flu cases in the United States. There are 26 confirmed cases in Mexico, 6 in Canada and 1 in Spain, he said. Britain subsequently confirmed 2 cases, and New York has 45 confirmed or likely cases, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Mexico has reported 1,600 suspected cases and says 149 people have died, possibly because of the disease. There are also suspected cases in France, Israel and New Zealand.