WHO to help fund bird flu vaccine plants in developing world

By Phil Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Influenza

The World Health Organization is donating millions of dollars to
help developing countries set up their own influenza vaccine
production in preparation for a possible bird flu pandemic.

The programme will provide cash for six nations to establish capacity to manufacture influenza vaccine. India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam will each get up to $2.5m from an $18m fund provided by the Government of Japan and the US Department of Health and Human Services. "Most countries with resource constraints do not have the means to access influenza vaccines. 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,"​ said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research. Kieny also noted that a second and more immediate benefit would come from an increase in the ability of these nations to produce seasonal flu vaccines, which "cause up to half a million annual deaths worldwide, as well as millions of cases of severe illness." ​The WHO estimates that it will take three-to-five years for the national initiatives to start producing vaccine supplies. The move should go some way towards counteracting a sense of injustice among countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, which have borne the brunt of bird flu in both poultry and human cost. Clinical samples taken from people who have become infected with bird flu in these countries have been used in the development of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies in the developed world. But the concern has been that the developing world will be denied access to the vaccines as wealthier nations embark on massive stockpiling efforts. Technology transfer ​ That said, there is already evidence of the pharmaceutical industry giving something back to the countries whose bird flu cases have helped its research efforts. For example, Sanofi-Aventis' vaccine subsidiary Sanofi Pasteur, which won the first US regulatory approval for a vaccine against the H5N1 strain of bird flu last week​, has embarked on a technology transfer operation with Brazil that almost certainly helped it secure its share of WHO funding. The WHO is also working alongside UN children's charity UNICEF to investigate financing avenues so that developing countries can access products manufactured by multinational vaccine producers. Bird flu does not normally infect humans, but there have been dozens of examples in the last few years of transmission from livestock to people, leading to fears that a strain could mutate that can be transmitted from human-to-human and so spark an international pandemic. Current vaccine manufacturing falls billions of doses short of what would be required to protect the six billion people in the world in the event of such a pandemic. And aside from the millions of livestock killed or culled as a result of the virus, the human death toll from bird flu continues to mount. Almost 300 people worldwide have been infected with the virus since 2003 and 172 of them have died, according to the WHO. 63 people had died from the disease in Indonesia as of January, with 17 fatal cases in Thailand as of last September. The agency has not reported data on the other four countries benefiting from the funding. Historically, flu pandemics have hit every few decades, killing millions around the world. The worst outbreak of the 20th century came in 1918-1919, where the strain known as Spanish flu caused 40-50 million deaths worldwide. Less serious outbreaks occurred in 1957-8 (Asian flu) and 1968-9 (Hong Kong flu), but since then there have been none, leading some to speculate that the next outbreak is just around the corner.

Related topics: Regulatory & Safety, Processing equipment

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