BEIJING - Some 2,600 birds have been found dead of bird flu in northern China's grasslands, the government said Wednesday, amid reports of new outbreaks in Europe and Russia.
Preliminary tests detected the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain in samples taken from a region south of Moscow where hundreds of birds died suddenly, the Agriculture Ministry said Wednesday.
If confirmed, the discovery in the Tula region, 125 miles south of Moscow, would mark the first time the lethal strain has appeared in European Russia, west of the Ural Mountains.
Elsewhere, tests carried out by experts in Britain confirmed the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain in a second location in Romania's eastern Danube Delta region, Romanian officials announced. Authorities have killed all farm birds in the area and finished disinfecting the areas, including people's houses and yards.
Specialists worry that infected birds in the Danube Delta, a large wetland reservation home to 323 species of birds, could spread the virus to Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece and Africa when they migrate later this year.
In Brussels, an EU official said bird flu was suspected in Macedonia, where authorities started Wednesday to cull 10,000 chickens in a small southern village as a precaution.
Macedonia borders Greece, where the EU was already investigating a possible outbreak of the H5N1 virus, which has killed 60 people in Asia. The lethal flu strain also has been confirmed in Turkey.
Scientists fear the H5N1 virus, which is difficult for humans to contract, could mutate into a form more easily transmitted between people and lead to a pandemic.
To prepare, the United States and European governments have been stockpiling vaccines, and on Wednesday the British government said it was inviting manufacturers to tender for a contract to supply a vaccine if a pandemic strain emerges.
The Department of Health said Wednesday it would need approximately 120 million doses to be available as soon as possible. "We can't prevent a flu pandemic, but we can reduce its impact," said Liam Donaldson, Britain's chief medical officer.
EU health officials have warned that most of the bloc's 25 countries lack sufficient stocks of anti-viral drugs, and said they are planning a simulation exercise of a flu pandemic by the end of the year to improve preparedness.
At the same time, the EU's disease control agency Wednesday tried to downplay anxiety about bird flu spreading to humans on the continent.
"The risk of infection for most people in Europe is close to zero," said Zsuzsanna Jakab of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
The agency gave two guidelines for people to minimize the risk of being infected: Don't touch dead or sick birds, and only eat poultry and eggs that are well prepared.
Also Wednesday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that the risk of bird flu spreading to the Middle East and Africa has markedly increased following the confirmation of outbreaks in Romania and Turkey which showed the virus was spreading along the pathways of migratory birds outside southeast Asia.
In Germany, the environment minister said farmers would be ordered to keep poultry indoors away from contact with migrating wild fowl.
And officials of the Israeli and Jordanian veterinary services will meet at the border between the two countries Thursday to work on a plan to combat bird flu, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.
The dead birds in China were found in a breeding facility in Tengjiaying, a village near Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region, the official Xinhua news agency reported. They were infected with H5N1, Xinhua said, giving no further details.
"The epidemic is under control," the report said.
In Macedonia, the birds were being destroyed in Mogila, a village outside the southern city of Bitola, following an outbreak of Newcastle Disease - a common and contagious poultry ailment - which has already killed hundreds of chickens. The cull was ordered after one of the chickens displayed irregular symptoms, and a sample was sent to Britain to test for bird flu.
EU spokesman Philip Tod said the bloc would send experts to Greece to help identify the bird flu strain there. Authorities have been disinfecting of a farm on a remote Aegean Sea island where a turkey was found to be infected with a strain of the disease.