UN reports progress towards ensuring developing countries’ access to bird flu vaccine

23 March 2007 – The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today reported further progress towards ensuring access to vaccines for developing countries in the event of a human bird flu pandemic and other vaccine-related aspects of pandemic preparedness, including the building of up to half a dozen new production facilities.

“Most countries with resource constraints do not have the means to access influenza vaccines,” WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research Director Marie-Paule Kieny said ahead of a two-day technical meeting opening in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday on options for ensuring vaccine access, including on sharing influenza viruses.

“If we are to be well-prepared for an influenza pandemic, it is essential that developing countries have access to vaccines. WHO is working to make this happen,” she added, calling for more funding for the 10-year $10-billion project.

Experts fear the current H5N1 bird flu virus could mutate and become more easily transmissible in humans, unleashing in a worst case scenario a human pandemic with a death toll in the millions.

Under WHO’s Global Pandemic Influenza Action Plan to increase vaccine supply, launched in October, up to six projects to establish in-country manufacturing capacity of vaccine are now in the final stage of approval in two Latin American and four Asian countries, three of which have had human H5N1 influenza cases.

This effort is supported with $18 million from the Government of Japan and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Associations has said it is willing to collaborate with WHO towards helping developing countries gain access to vaccines through technology transfer and other appropriate strategies.

WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are also investigating financing avenues so that developing countries can access products manufactured by multinational vaccine producers. Currently under consideration are the establishment of a virtual international pandemic influenza stockpile and advance purchase schemes to secure funds to buy vaccines for developing countries.

Moreover encouraging progress has been made in a third key area identified in the Global Action Plan – research and development – with over 40 clinical trials of vaccines already completed or ongoing, all reported safe and well tolerated in all age groups tested.

“We are pleased with progress in the pandemic influenza vaccine area since our Global Action Plan was published. For this work to continue to advance in a timely manner, additional funds are needed for this 10-year, $10 billion effort to protect the world from what could be a devastating public health crisis,” Dr. Kieny said. “We urge other countries and donors to step up and join Canada, Japan and the United States in supporting this critical work.”

H5N1 has infected 281 people worldwide, 169 of them fatally, nearly all of them believed to have been infected by poultry. But experts fear any mutation could result I in easy human-to-human transmission. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which spread easily between humans, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people.

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