WHO: Six developing countries may get flu vaccine plants

Editor's note: Contrary to this story, information obtained Mar 23 from the World Health Organization and from another news report indicated that Thailand had no plans to withhold H5N1 virus samples. See link at end of story for more information.

Mar 22, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO), faced with developing countries' growing reluctance to share samples of H5N1 avian flu viruses, said today that four Asian countries and two in Latin America are moving closer to getting their own flu vaccine manufacturing plants.

"Up to six projects to establish in-country manufacturing capacity of influenza vaccine are in the final stage of approval following an application process which began in November," the WHO said in a news release. "These projects will take place in two Latin American and four Asian countries, three of which have had human H5N1 influenza cases."

The statement said vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur has "played a key role in transferring vaccine technology to Brazil, which will be in a position to produce vaccine next year." But the agency did not clarify whether Brazil is one of the two Latin American countries involved, nor did it name any of the other countries.

Japan and the United States have provided $18 million to support the effort, the WHO said, without giving other details on the plans.

The announcement comes in the wake of Indonesia's statement last month and Thailand's declaration today that the countries will not share any more H5N1 virus samples with the WHO without a guarantee of access to any vaccines based on their samples. The countries complain that they get little or nothing in return for the samples, because the specimens are used to make vaccines that the countries' populations can't afford.

In other efforts to ensure that developing countries will have access to vaccines in the event of a flu pandemic, the WHO said it is exploring financing mechanisms to help countries buy vaccines from multinational companies. Among the proposals are a "virtual international pandemic influenza stockpile and advance purchase mechanisms to secure funds to buy vaccines for developing countries."

WHO officials are scheduled to meet with a number of Asian health ministers Mar 26 and 27 in Jakarta to discuss access to pandemic vaccines and sharing of virus samples. Today's statement was intended to facilitate discussions at the Jakarta meeting.

"Most countries with resource constraints do not have the means to access influenza vaccines," Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the WHO's Initiative for Vaccine Research, said in the statement. "If we are to be well-prepared for an influenza pandemic, it is essential that developing countries have access to vaccines."

Yesterday David Heymann, the WHO's acting director-general for communicable diseases, was quoted as saying that certain vaccine makers might be able to transfer some manufacturing capacity to developing countries, but that it could take 10 years. He also noted that the world's total capacity for making flu vaccine is very limited. The WHO has estimated capacity at no more than 350 million doses of trivalent flu vaccine.

The WHO released a "global pandemic influenza action plan to increase vaccine supply" in October 2006. Today the agency said more money is needed to keep the plan on track.

"For this work to continue to advance in a timely manner, additional funds are needed for this10-year, US $10 billion effort to protect the world from what could be a devastating public health crisis," the statement said. "We urge other countries to step up and join Canada, Japan and the United States in supporting this critical work."

See also:

Mar 23 CIDRAP News story "Thailand to continue sharing H5N1 samples"

Mar 21 CIDRAP News story "WHO to discuss vaccine access with Asian officials"

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