by The Associated Press
NPR.org, May 19, 2009 · Drug manufacturers won’t be able to start making a swine flu vaccine until mid-July at the earliest, months later than previous predictions, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
The disclosure that making a swine flu vaccine is proving more difficult than experts first thought came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan met with representatives from up to 30 pharmaceutical companies to discuss the subject.
Health officials from around the world are attending WHO’s annual meeting in Geneva this week to discuss the outbreak that has infected 9,830 people in over 40 countries, killing 79 of them.
According to vaccine experts convened by WHO last week, 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.
The flu experts said vaccine manufacturers will not be ready to produce a swine flu vaccine until mid-July at the earliest, the agency reported Tuesday on its Web site. Previously, WHO officials had estimated that production could start in late May.
Experts also found no evidence that regular flu vaccines offer any protection against swine flu.
Vaccine experts estimated under the best conditions, they could produce nearly 5 billion doses of swine flu vaccine over a year after beginning full-scale production. In that situation, the U.N. might have access to up to 400 million doses for poor countries. The rest of the vaccines would presumably go to wealthy contras who have already signed deals to get the pandemic vaccine as soon as it is available.
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.
Chan said Monday that it would be impossible to produce enough vaccine for all 6.8 billion people on the planet. That suggests a possible global scramble where rich countries outbid poorer nations for the vaccine, leaving them unprotected against the virus.
“It is absolutely essential that countries do not squander these precious resources through poorly targeted measures,” she said.
Unlike other countries such as Britain, the United States has so far refrained from reserving its share of any new vaccine.
“At this point we have not placed orders for vaccine,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen 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, and at what point.”