Two premed students and a bunch of French soldiers spent the morning simulating a bird flu "pandemic" in the southeastern city of Lyon. The drill, rolled out in three parts, tested France's preparedness in case of an outbreak.
The test may soon become a reality if the H5N1 virus spreads to humans in western Europe. Right now, only wild swans and turkey flocks have gotten the deadly flu in Europe. Humans have been infected as far west as Turkey.
Watching the exercise unfold on a TV screen, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said, "Anticipation and transparence help minimize drama." For him, the drill was part of the necessary steps "to guarantee a full-proof response."
With health officials and journalists, the large gathering witnessed a plane land at the far corner of the Lyon airport before a hazmatlike crew sprang into action.
This Is a Test, I Repeat, a Test
The pilot informed the control tower that two passengers were sick and that bird flu might be the cause.
In the drill, one patient was supposedly a vet while the other was a feather salesman for a duvet company. The plane, flying from a random city in Southeast Asia, was automatically quarantined and the two "patients" donned masks.
Doctors in full protective gear boarded the plane, and the "patients" were evacuated to the nearby hospital. Meanwhile, airport personnel catalogued every passenger's identity to keep track of them in the coming weeks.
A flock of government officials along with a gaggle of journalists then followed the "sick" patients to the hospital.
Doctors from the infectious-disease unit swept in and wheeled each patient to an isolated, airtight room. The hospital then kicked into high gear, preparing wards for other possible bird flu cases.
Congratulations All Around
A faux news conference was held with doctors informing the public that test results would reveal whether or not the passengers had the bird flu in six hours.
In the interest of time, the bird flu drill ended with a tour of the nearby drug company, Sanofi-Pasteur. In the case of a pandemic, Sanofi would crank out bird flu medicines.
In a real news conference, Villepin congratulated the hospital and the airport for a successful test.
"We checked our alert system and made sure our medical team is qualified to handle such a threat," he said, adding that this exemplified the government's stellar organization.
He also reassured everyone that France was ready in case of an outbreak, saying that 11 million people could be treated with the Tamiflu vaccine. Villepin said he aimed to raise that number to 33 million by 2007.
A two-day national drill is set to begin March 15 in Paris.