By Albertina Torsoli
Last Updated: April 29, 2009 05:39 EDT
April 29 (Bloomberg) — Sanofi-Aventis SA wouldn’t be able to make shots against seasonal influenza, which kills as many as 500,000 people a year, if asked to develop a vaccine to prevent swine flu, Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher said.
Swine flu, if it turns out to be less severe than its seasonal cousin, could deprive millions of people of a vaccine they need each year because drugmakers like Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline Plc don’t have the capacity to produce shots against several flus at the same time.
“That will be a very difficult choice,” Viehbacher said at a news conference today after the French drugmaker reported a 16 percent increase in first-quarter profit. “Clearly, if you make a swine flu vaccine and the pandemic doesn’t actually occur, we could end up with no seasonal flu vaccine.”
The number of worldwide cases of the virus reached by laboratory tests reached 112 today, the World Health Organization said. On April 27, the United Nations agency raised its global pandemic alert one notch to level 4, saying the disease is no longer containable. The level “does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a foregone conclusion,” according to the agency’s guidelines. There are two higher levels on the WHO’s scale.
A pandemic could also end up sickening lots of people around the globe with something mild and causing few deaths, said Ian Barr, deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Influenza in Melbourne.
“The decision to switch over is a tricky one,” said Martin Meltzer, an economist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview yesterday. “If this isn’t the pandemic, you worry about the next flu season. If we have nothing because we switched to swine flu, that’s not good.”
At a time when scientists can tailor drugs to match a patient’s genetic profile and people live longer than ever, the flu, first described by Hippocrates 2,400 years ago, still has the power to make millions bed-bound for a week and kill the very young, the elderly and those weakened by chronic disease.
The virus travels in the fine spray of the coughs and sneezes of infected people. The three main seasonal flu strains — H3N2, H1N1 and type-B — cause 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year globally, according to the WHO.
Viehbacher today said Paris-based Sanofi, one of the world’s biggest vaccine makers, has asked employees to avoid traveling to and from Mexico.
The drugmaker’s 3,000 local workers have been given face masks and transportation to the workplace to avoid exposure to the virus through public transport, Viehbacher said.