There is little comforting about being in the eye of a storm. With Sars again detected on the mainland and the H5N1 bird flu virus causing deaths in Vietnam and breaking out among poultry in Japan and South Korea, Hong Kong is in an uneasy position. Neither of these deadly viruses evolved in Hong Kong; scientists pinpoint southern China as their place of origin. The same was apparently the case for the last two global flu pandemics, the so-called Hong Kong flu in 1968 and the Asian flu in 1957. But because of our location and role as a regional transport and business hub, we are highly susceptible to falling victim to Sars, bird flu and whatever new permutations may come along. In Hong Kong's favour, though, is our unrivalled expertise in dealing with such emergencies. The rest of the world looks to us for the answers. That has been the case with the H5N1 outbreak in Vietnam, from where samples were flown to the city for testing. It was the same with Sars - our experience counted for much when the virus began spreading to other countries last year. The World Health Organisation, one of the United Nations' most effective bodies, frequently turns to our scientists for advice, as do other countries in the region. Consequently, our researchers are constantly travelling, adding to their own knowledge and sharing their expertise. Herein lies a problem: despite Hong Kong's excellent work in viral research, the funding available for further work is far less than it should be. The nature of the threat, on our doorstep, to us and the world means it is short-sighted to keep funding at this relatively low level. Microbiologists, such as Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong, have warned that H5N1 is a potentially catastrophic virus. It is continually evolving and scientists are working constantly to keep up with its latest mutations. Dr Guan believes this virus is more dangerous than Sars and could become the cause of the next pandemic if scientists do not stay one step ahead. The proof of its lethal nature was felt in Hong Kong in 1997, when six of 18 people infected died. At least 12 of the 14 people suspected of catching the virus in Vietnam have died. So far, the WHO has confirmed three had H5N1. Hong Kong's scientists determined that culling poultry, the suspected cause of transmission of the virus to humans, would prevent its spread. Last month, 1.1 million birds were killed in South Korea when the virus was detected. Because of the swift response, no cases of human infection were recorded. A cull began in Japan's Yamaguchi prefecture this week when H5N1 was detected on a farm and the same steps are being taken now in Vietnam - although health officials fear the action there has come too late. Experts say the world is overdue for an influenza pandemic. Dr Guan believes bird flu has the potential to kill millions of people. With H5N1 able to cross borders easily, most likely carried in the gut of migrating birds, the nightmare scenario could well come true, unless health officials maintain the utmost vigilance and are prepared to act firmly and quickly. The Hong Kong flu pandemic 35 years ago killed 700,000 people, and one million died in the Asian flu outbreak. The so-called Spanish flu, which struck the world in 1918, killed about 20 million. Dr Guan and his fellow researchers are not pessimists. From their frontline positions, they know their foe better than anyone and they understand its ability to mutate. Their efforts, combined with our alertness, will help the world weather the storm that looms so menacingly.