Health officials have confirmed they are finalising a new national plan to tackle a UK outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus, as international experts warn the world is in the 'gravest possible danger' of a pandemic.
Since 2003 the disease has killed 45 people across Asia, with observers warning any global epidemic could potentially dwarf the worst health disasters in history - and kill as many as 40 million people.
Vietnam has seen 33 people die after contracting the virus, with 12 dead in Thailand and cases reported across Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos and South Korea.
The World Health Organisation has warned governments they must stockpile vaccines now in preparation for a pandemic, a move taken up by the US, French and Italian administrations.
Though London Mayor KenLivingstone yesterday announced a pounds 1 million programme to protect key workers in the capital, the Government has been criticised for failing to quickly respond to the situation.
Anti-viral drugs have so far been ordered only to protect up to 100,000 police officers, transport workers and firefighters in the capital.
Department of Health officials said similar plans are being made on a national scale, but claimed it will not stockpile vaccine supplies.
'We are very close to finalising a new plan for potential flu pandemics, which will take in the latest advice, technology and medicine,' said a DoH spokeswoman.
'The department does not believe stockpiling vaccines is the best course to follow, as we cannot be sure what mutation of the virus would be involved in any pandemic.
'One possibility is to secure 'seed' vaccines, which could be quickly adapted as soon asthey are needed.' A previous draft of a flu pandemic plan, produced in March 1997, confirmed that with vaccine likely to be scarce, priority would be given to healthcare workers, the armed and emergency services, utilities staff and undertakers.
Avian flu is thought to have originated in Asia in wild waterfowl. It later passed to poultry, where it evolved and became a threat to humans.
A death in Hong Kong in May 1997 is thought to be the first human fatality linked to the virus, but now the H5N1 influenza strain is believed to have a fatality rate of 76 per cent.
Dr John Watson of the Health Protection Agency Centre for Infections in London said: 'We cannot know for certain what is likely to happen, there could be an outbreak in a month or in 20 years. Every ten, 20 or 30 years there is a flu pandemic. In 1918 there were 40 to 50 million people killed