Move scuppers the world health body's hopes of using amantadine to protect humans in the event of a global bird flu pandemic The WHO will meet officials in Beijing this week to discuss the mainland's use of a human antiviral drug on chickens to suppress a bird flu outbreak, amid fears it could threaten public safety in the event of a global pandemic. Drug company officials in Beijing have been quoted by US media as saying the Ministry of Agriculture had urged farmers to use amantadine on infected birds for the past eight years, in breach of international guidelines. The revelation of the drug's use explains why scientists discovered late last year that bird flu had grown resistant to amantadine, which now cannot be used to fight the virus in humans. World Health Organisation spokesman Dick Thompson said at the weekend the UN body had long suspected China was using amantadine on poultry. 'We will be asking the government in Beijing about it this week,' he said. Mr Thompson said the drug should have played a key role in fighting a global outbreak, but was now ineffective against the H5N1 strain found in Asia. 'It would have been important in a pandemic and it is a disappointment that it may have been lost to us,' he said. Bird flu has spread across Southeast Asia over the past 18 months, infecting more than 100 people, killing at least 54 and devastating poultry stocks. The first human cases of bird flu were recorded in Hong Kong in 1997, when the H5N1 variant mutated into a form lethal to humans, killing six people. The WHO said the virus could easily mutate further, allowing it to jump between humans in a lethal strain that could kill millions worldwide. Amantadine is one of two drugs used to treat human influenza. The alternative, oseltamivir, is much more expensive to mass-produce. The Washington Post reported that mainland animal health officials said government bodies approved the production and sale of the drug for use in chickens, even though the practice was banned in many western countries because the virus developed resistance. Mainland farmers and officials from pharmaceutical companies confirmed the drug had been used since the late 1990s to treat sick chickens and prevent healthy birds from catching the disease. 'Amantadine is widely used in the entire country,' Zhang Libin, from the Northeast General Pharmaceutical Factory, was quoted as saying by the US daily. 'Many pharmaceutical factories around China produce amantadine, and farmers can buy it easily.' A farmer from Hebei confirmed that he had been giving his chickens the drug for several years. 'Local government vets have always recommended it,' he said. Last week, the mainland confirmed an outbreak of bird flu in Xinjiang, where 460 geese died and more than 13,000 birds were slaughtered to try to control its spread. The outbreak came only a few weeks after more than 1,000 migratory birds died of the virus in neighbouring Qinghai province, the first confirmed outbreak on the mainland in almost 12 months. Three years ago, Beijing was condemned internationally for trying to hide the extent of the Sars outbreak.