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Last Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Simulation talks on bird flu risk
A veterinary personnel vaccinates a chicken at Lendah village in Kulon Progo-Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 27 January 2005
Bird flu has claimed 55 lives in China, Vietnam and Thailand
Government emergencies planners are to perform a round table simulation exercise next month on the dangers of a bird flu pandemic.

The meeting is described as a "routine, table-top exercise" to build on planning already done in the UK.

The Health Protection Agency and some NHS trusts have held similar exercises.

The simulation follows an EU ban on imports of feathers and live birds from Russia and Kazakhstan - where there have been outbreaks of the disease.

The bird flu virus - H5N1 - has already killed more than 50 people across Asia.

There are fears it could mutate into a human version of the disease and repeat the 1918 outbreak, which killed more than 200,000 people in the UK and 50 million internationally.

Drugs questions

The government is refusing to confirm that the simulation is organised through Cobra - the emergencies committee room used to handle the London bombings.

It says it is the latest in a range of routine exercises, some of which have already involved central government.

The Department of Health promised such exercises in March when it published a plan for dealing with pandemics.

A spokeswoman in the Cabinet Office, where Cobra meetings are held, said: "Exercises are used very routinely and very importantly to prepare our contingency plans."

Labour MP Howard Stoate, who sits on the Commons health committee, said many of the concerns about the bird flu virus were theoretical.

"We don't know at what speed the virus might mutate, we don't know how infectious it might become if it were to mutate so I think we have to be prepared for almost any eventuality," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

"I think the fact that Cobra is now taking this so seriously and is planning an exercise is very welcome.

"I think also welcome is the stockpiling the government has already started of anti-viral drugs."

There was not yet a vaccine known to be reliable but there were drugs which could at least reduce the effect and slow the spread of the virus, added Dr Stoate.

See how bird flu can spread and take hold

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