By MICHAEL CASEY / AP WRITER
BANGKOK — Asian health officials gathered Thursday to draw up a game plan for dealing with an outbreak of swine flu that has sickened thousands worldwide, considering measures to develop vaccines and bolster medicine stockpiles.
The virus has largely spared the region. South Korea remained the only Asian country with confirmed cases of swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, while China on Thursday released a group of people quarantined for a week after being on the same flight as a Mexican man diagnosed with swine flu. At least 28 persons in Hong Kong also regained their freedom.
But delegates at the Bangkok meeting said there was no room for complacency.
They said this two-day conference would be a chance to boost cooperation among governments that already are considered among the world's most prepared because of their experience responding to the SARS outbreak in 2003 and bird flu since then.
Hundreds of police and troops in battle gear ringed the hotel in downtown Bangkok where the officials met to forestall a repeat of last month's meeting of Asian leaders which was broken up by anti-government demonstrators. There were no protesters in sight Thursday.
"In a more globalized and interconnected world, an outbreak of an emerging infectious disease is immensely swift. To deal with it requires strong cooperative efforts," Thailand's Permanent Secretary for Health Prat Boonyawongvirot told delegates.
Prat said the health ministers from the 10 countries of Association of Southeast Nations along with China, South Korea and Japan will consider establishing mechanism for the development, holding and production of vaccines and anti-viral drugs and expansion of the ASEAN emergency stockpile of 1 million courses of Tamiflu and Relenza.
"This will ensure security for all people from the emergency threat of H1N1," he said.
The majority of swine flu cases have come from Mexico which has reported 840 of the nearly 1,600 confirmed cases of swine flu in 23 countries worldwide. There have been 44 deaths, 42 in Mexico and two in the US.
South Korea on Thursday confirmed a third case of swine flu, but said the 62-year-old woman already had recovered from the disease. She was released from a military-run hospital, the Health Ministry said.
The woman had been staying in the US state of Arizona and was on the same flight back to South Korea as the country's first confirmed patient, a Catholic nun returning from a trip to Mexico on April 26. The nun recovered earlier this week. China's tough measures have drawn complaints from Mexico and other countries that their citizens were being quarantined based merely on their nationality. Mexico's president has called the Chinese measures discriminatory.
China defends the measures, which it says are needed to block swine flu virus from entering the world's most populous nation. There has been one confirmed case in Hong Kong, a plane passenger from Mexico, but none on the mainland.
Dozens of people under quarantine across China were released or would be released later Thursday if they showed no symptoms of the illness, the Health Ministry said. Many were put in isolation because they had been on an April 30 flight from Mexico with the traveler diagnosed in Hong Kong.
While some were released, others began new rounds of isolation. In Shanghai, 119 Chinese who returned home from Mexico on Wednesday aboard a charter flight began a week of quarantine at a local hotel, while a vice health minister said the nation's aggressive prevention measures were working and would be maintained.
At least 28 of the 34 passengers who flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong with the Mexican man confirmed as the territory's only swine flu patient were released Thursday afternoon. TV footage showed the passengers being loaded onto a bus and driven to local hotels from a Hong Kong holiday camp where they were held for a week.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the six remaining, detained in two other locations, had left, though their quarantine also ended.
The 274 guests and employees isolated inside Hong Kong's Metropark Hotel, where the Mexican man had stayed, since May 1 were set to be released Friday.