Global Processing

Rich nations lock in flu vaccine as poor ones fret

May 18, 2009
A scramble among wealthy nations to guard against a swine flu pandemic is raising concerns that billions of people in poorer countries could be left without adequate supplies of vaccine, reports The Wall Street Journal. An increasing number of Western countries are signing agreements with vaccine makers guaranteeing them a certain number of doses should a pandemic occur. By locking up the supply in advance, they are making it even tougher for poor countries to get access to the shots they would need, critics say. Leaders from the World Health Organization and the United Nations are set to meet with drug-company executives in Geneva in part to hash out possible solutions to the vaccine problem. Developing nations are sounding alarms about being left out in case of pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies have severely limited capacity to produce flu vaccines in emergencies. The WHO estimates drug companies will be able to produce between one billion and two billion doses of vaccine a year for a pandemic, depending on how much active ingredient is needed per dose. That is far short of the world''s population of 6.8 billion. Wealthy countries have been moving quickly to snap up the available capacity, ordering enough shots to cover much of their populations. The WHO hasn''t yet declared a swine flu pandemic, nor have drug companies started producing pandemic vaccine in large quantities. Once they do, it will take four to six months before the first doses are available. Meanwhile, developing nations are sounding alarms about their vulnerable position. In a recent statement, health ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, said "access to effective pandemic vaccines is a major problem in this region," and called on the WHO for help. Drug companies say they recognize the problem of getting vaccines to poorer nations. Glaxo plans to start producing a pre-pandemic vaccine against the current strain of the A/H1N1 virus causing the swine flu outbreak. There is no guarantee this vaccine would work during a pandemic if the virus mutates significantly. Glaxo said it plans to donate 50 million doses of this pre-pandemic vaccine to the WHO for use in the developing world. Albert Garcia, a spokesman for France''s Sanofi-Aventis SA, one of the largest vaccine makers, said while the company has signed loose agreements with France, Italy, Australia and the U.S. to supply vaccine in the event of a pandemic, the deals don''t specify the number of doses, the price or the timing of delivery. Access to antivirals such as Tamiflu, used to treat a person already infected with the flu, are also an issue. Roche Holding AG, which makes Tamiflu, has donated millions of doses to the World Health Organization and increased its production to meet rising demand. It has also authorized a handful of generic companies to make and sell the drug in the developing world, in order to increase overall supply. But it is facing pressure to allow more widespread generic production.