Processing Magazine

WHO seeks swine flu vaccine help for poor nations

May 20, 2009
The World Health Organization urged drugmakers to reserve some of their pandemic swine flu vaccine for poor countries, but received few concrete offers as experts disclosed that an effective flu shot is still months away, reports the Associated Press. The global body wants companies to donate at least 10 percent of their production or offer reduced prices for poor countries that could otherwise be left without vaccines if there is a sudden surge in demand. But some are skeptical about what such a commitment could mean for their business. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with thirty major pharmaceutical manufacturers calling for global solidarity in confronting the disease. The only major drugmaker that publicly agreed to the WHO request was Britain''s GlaxoSmithKline, which said it would donate 50 million doses in a pandemic and offer more that WHO could buy at a discount for poor countries. A second drugmaker with only limited production capacity said it would share half of its vaccine doses. WHO officials declined to identify the company because the deal has yet to be signed. Smaller vaccine makers from developing countries also promised to share 10 percent of their vaccines with the U.N. at cheaper prices. Swine flu has been confirmed in more than 9,830 people in at least 40 countries, with most of the cases in Mexico and the U.S. The impact of a pandemic — a global epidemic — is expected to be worse in poor countries, where people with other diseases such as AIDS and malaria are more susceptible to swine flu and national health systems are less able to respond. Many rich countries have already signed deals with vaccine makers that promise them millions of pandemic vaccines as soon as they''re available. Manufacturers won''t be able to start making the vaccine until mid-July at the earliest, weeks later than previous predictions, according to an expert panel convened by WHO. It will then take months to produce the vaccine in large quantities. The swine flu virus is not growing very fast in laboratories, making it difficult for scientists to get the key ingredient they need for a vaccine, the "seed stock" from the virus, WHO said. Experts estimated that under the best conditions, drug companies could produce nearly 5 billion doses of swine flu vaccine in the year after beginning full-scale production. In any case, mass-producing a pandemic vaccine would be a gamble, as it would take away manufacturing capacity for the seasonal flu vaccine that kills up to 500,000 people each year. Some experts have wondered whether the world really needs a vaccine for an illness that so far appears mild. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the U.S. felt it had a responsibility to ensure that both antiviral drugs and any new vaccine are also available to poor countries. The United States has so far refrained from reserving any new vaccine. Sebelius said the United States is working to boost its production capacity for seasonal flu vaccines so those factories could switch to the pandemic swine flu strain if needed.