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Swine flu cases soar towards 10,000

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has urged people to remain vigilant against swine flu as the number of cases around the world shot up to almost 10,000.

Previous pandemics had shown flu outbreaks could start mild and worsen, Ban said as he addressed the World Health Organisation's (WHO) annual assembly in Geneva. "That is why the world must remain vigilant and alert to the warning signs."

The UN health agency said cases had soared by more than 1,000 since Monday with 9,830 infections now in 40 countries, including 79 deaths.

The WHO has so far resisted pressure to declare a full-fledged swine flu pandemic, but anxiety about the spread of the virus - especially in Asia and the Americas - is growing.

Japan reported 193 swine flu infections as of Tuesday and closed more than 4,000 schools, colleges and kindergartens for the rest of the week to slow the spread of the virus, officials said.

Ban was holding talks with leaders of some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies on the development of a vaccine.

About 30 vaccine makers from 19 industrialised and developing countries were invited by the WHO to the discussions, which officials said focused on the cost of the vaccine and its availability in the most vulnerable poor countries.

Ban told the WHO's assembly afterwards that partnerships with the private sector would be "absolutely vital".

"Solidarity in the face of this particular outbreak must mean that all have access to drugs and vaccines," he told the group's 193 member states.

"It means that virus samples and data are shared."

The WHO has been weighing the risks of halting production of the seasonal flu virus to free up production capacity for a swine flu vaccine.

An extract of a WHO forecast presented to vaccine makers said it should be possible to produce 4.9 billion doses of a swine flu vaccine in a year, but only if full-scale production was launched.

The UN health agency is counting on output of 94.3 million doses a week, according to the presentation made to drugs companies, part of which was seen by AFP. Continued...

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