The World Health Organisation is in talks with governments and Roche, the pharmaceuticals group, about the creation of a stockpile of antiviral drugs in Asia to provide treatment and protection against pandemic flu.

William Burns, head of pharmaceuticals at Roche, said he had held preliminary discussions with the WHO about creating a pool of donations from richer countries, representing 5 per cent of their own stockpiles or purchases made with an equivalent financial contribution.

The move comes at a time of growing concern that nearly all of the 50 countries that have placed orders for Tamiflu, Roche's antiviral drug, are in the developed world. This leaves the developing nations exposed, including those in south-east Asia, where experts believe a pandemic is most likely to begin.

Such a stockpile would be larger and separate from the donation of 3m treatments of Tamiflu made by Roche to the WHO, which will be completed by early next year and is designed to act as a ?fire blanket? to stamp out an epidemic in its country of origin before it becomes a pandemic.

Thailand, the only nation in south-east Asia to reveal its purchases of Tamiflu, has already offered to donate 5 per cent of its 725,000 treatments into a south-east Asian stockpile.

Australia, Japan and South Korea have been encouraged to take part, while the US and the European Union have both raised the prospect of ?solidarity funding? to help poorer countries prepare for a pandemic.

Margaret Chan, assistant director-general of the WHO in charge of influenza pandemic co-ordination, confirmed that she had held discussions about the creation of a regional stockpile, while stressing that ?nothing has been finalised yet?.

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