A severe bird flu pandemic among humans could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion, the World Bank said on Sunday, sharply raising earlier estimates.
The comments came as a senior World Health Organization official said the threat from the H5N1 avian flu virus was just as real today as it was six months ago, even if the headlines were not as scary.
Jim Adams, vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific and head of the Bank´s avian flu taskforce, said a severe pandemic could cost more than three percent of the global economy´s gross national product.
"We estimate this could cost certainly over $1 trillion and perhaps as high as $2 trillion in a worst-case scenario. So the threat, the economic threat, remains real and substantial," he told reporters at the annual IMF-World Bank meetings in Singapore.
He said earlier estimates last year of about $800 billion in economic costs were basically written on the back of an envelope. But more recent financial modeling had revealed a sharper threat should the virus mutate and pass easily among people.
He said it was crucial to develop strong anti-bird flu programs around the world to strengthen health and veterinarian services as well as improve public education and transparency.
"We have been working in virtually all of the countries, developing countries, that have been affected by an avian flu outbreak, providing advice and financing in the development of projects to tackle the challenge," he said.
Financing totaling about $150 million had been committed for projects in 11 countries, ranging from Albania to Laos and Turkey to tackle the disease, which has killed at least 144 people since it re-emerged in Asia in 2003.
An additional $15 million in grant aid had also been finalized for cash-strapped Indonesia, Adams said, as part of a wider package to help that country control the virus. Bird flu has killed nearly 50 people in Indonesia, the world´s highest national toll, and the virus is endemic in poultry in most provinces of the southeast Asian nation.
David Nabarro, the WHO´s avian flu coordinator, said one only had to look at the resurgence of bird flu in Thailand and Laos in past months to understand the risks posed by H5N1.
"The only difference between now and six months ago is not that the problem doesn´t exist, it is perhaps headline writers have got used to it," he told reporters when asked if bird flu had turned into the Y2K of the viral world.
Fears of mass computer breakdowns due to glitches associated with Y2K, the turn of the millennium in 2000, proved unfounded.
Nabarro expressed satisfaction at the way governments around the world had responded to bird flu and that country-specific programs were well under way in most, creating confidence for donors that their money would be well spent.
At a donors´ conference in Beijing in January, nearly $1.9 billion was pledged. So far about $1.2 billion had been committed for projects and over $300 million disbursed as loans or grants.
Nabarro agreed there was a shortage of funds but it was crucial to focus on the fact that "we now have got in countries good ways of spending resources so we get results".