LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) Britain is to double its stockpile of antiviral drugs to cope with a possible flu outbreak that experts fear could kill hundreds of thousands, the government said today.
Health Secretary Alan Johnson said his department had pre-ordered enough medicine to protect half the population once a strain has been identified.
''A pandemic will break out,'' he told parliament. ''It is not a question of if, it is a question of when and it is right that this country is properly prepared.'' Health experts say a global influenza pandemic is overdue.
There were three such pandemics last century, including the 1918 global outbreak in which anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people died, and milder ones in 1957-58 and 1968.
Researchers cannot predict which strain will strike next but the H5N1 avian flu virus now hitting flocks of birds across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe is the main suspect.
Between a quarter and half of the population might fall ill during a pandemic, Johnson said. Up to 2.5 per cent of those infected could die.
A flu pandemic is ''one of the most severe risks'' that Britain faces, he added.
''We know a pandemic would have significant social and economic impact as well as a serious effect on the health of the population,'' he said.
The Department of Health has awarded contracts to GlaxoSmithKline Plc and US group Baxter International . They are worth 155.4 million pounds over four years.
The companies are committed to supply a pandemic flu vaccine as soon as the strain is identified and made available by the World Health Organisation.
The government is also buying 14.7 million courses of antibiotics, 34 million respirators and 350 million face masks.
REUTERS PD RAI2007