WHO: production of vaccine against bird flu may be too slow

Scientific advances will allow more rapid production of a vaccine to combat a pandemic strain of influenza if it develops from the current bird flu virus circulating in Asia, but production will still be too slow to protect everybody, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The global pharmaceutical industry can now produce 900 million vaccines within eight months of analyzing a new virus strain, said Klaus Stohr, who coordinates the WHO's global influenza program. But he said that would hardly serve the needs of the 6.4 billion people in the world.

"Three months after the emergence of a (human influenza) virus it will have spread to all countries around the world," he told scientists and other experts attending the global coordination meeting on bird flu and human flu.

In 1997, when the H5N1 bird flu strain first appeared in Hong Kong, it took the pharmaceutical industry two years to transfer the virus into a safe human vaccine prototype, a step that now takes as little as three weeks, Stohr said. That step is only the first stage to producing a vaccine.

Based on earlier mild pandemics in the 1950s and 1960s, WHO estimates that a mild pandemic would kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people and hospitalize an additional 28 million. It is assumed that a new flu virus will infect up to 35 percent of the population.

During the meeting, the United States proposed that plans to extinguish a pandemic before it can spread, be discussed in detail and committed to paper, and rehearsed.

WHO has said that if the emergence of a pandemic strain is detected early, experts may be able to squash it by rushing antiviral drugs to the region to stop the virus spreading. The United States said WHO should immediately convene a small expert group to thrash out details of the rapid response, the AP says.

"The proposal is that we put together a small group in time to pull something together prior to the WHO's executive board meeting in January," said Bud Rock of the U.S. State Department.

By January, the WHO will have access to about 3 million antiviral treatment courses, and a number of countries are building up national stockpiles of the drugs, hoping they will combat a pandemic until a vaccine can be made and distributed.


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