[health-vn] WHO seeks swine flu vaccine help for poor nations
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Thu May 21 10:42:35 EST 2009
WHO seeks swine flu vaccine help for poor nations
By FRANK JORDANS and MARIA CHENG, Associated Press Writers – Wed May 20, 12:49 am ET
GENEVA – 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.
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.
"I don't think that all of the answers are there yet," said Swiss pharmaceutical
giant Novartis AG spokesman Eric Althoff.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with 30 major pharmaceutical
manufacturers, called Tuesday for global solidarity in confronting the disease.
Solidarity "must mean that all have access to drugs and vaccines," he added.
The only major drugmaker that publicly agreed to the WHO request Tuesday was
Britain's GlaxoSmithKline PLC, 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.
"I can reassure you I have received very serious commitments," WHO
Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan told reporters after meeting with the
drugmakers. Nearby, health ministers from around the world gathered for WHO's
annual assembly and discussed how to tackle the outbreak.
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. That figure does not include
Taiwan which reported its first confirmed case on Wednesday. The global death
toll was at least 83 — 74 in Mexico, seven in the U.S., one in Canada and one in
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 — including Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and Switzerland
— have already signed deals with vaccine makers that promise them millions of
pandemic vaccines as soon as they're available.
Others companies that attended the Geneva meeting, including Sanofi-Aventis and
Baxter International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
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
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 also found no evidence that regular flu vaccines offer any protection
against swine flu.
They estimated that under the best conditions, drug companies could produce
nearly 5 billion doses of swine flu vaccine in the year after beginning
One expert, however, thought the 5 billion dose estimate was too optimistic.
"We should go forward with production as quickly as possible, but we should be
cautious" about predictions, said David Fedson, a vaccine expert and former
medical professor at the University of Virginia.
Chan has warned that it would be impossible to produce enough vaccine for all
6.8 billion people on the planet.
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 Tuesday 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.
"At this point we have not placed orders for vaccine," Sebelius told reporters
in Geneva. "There is still so much uncertainty about this virus that it is
really premature for us to even make a determination of how many people would
appropriately be vaccinated, in what order, how many doses would be required."
Cheng reported from London.
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