updated 2/16/2007 5:18:37 PM ET 2007-02-16T22:18:37

The world’s ability to produce pandemic vaccine if the bird flu triggers a global outbreak has greatly increased over the past year, experts said Friday, as the U.N. health agency welcomed Indonesia’s decision to again share its virus samples with the world.

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The first doses of a new vaccine could be available within three months after any mutations of the H5N1 virus into a strain easily passed among humans, said Ian Gust, who chaired the two-day meeting at the World Health Organization.

It is likely, however, that there would be delays in identifying the pandemic virus and getting the vaccine into production, but the progress is encouraging, Gust said.

Last week, Indonesia set off a storm of international criticism when WHO revealed the country stopped sharing H5N1 samples with the global community, and had instead signed a deal with a U.S. pharmaceutical for pandemic vaccine development. In response top WHO flu officials flew to Jakarta this week for urgent talks with the Minister of Health. They announced today that Indonesia would resume sharing viruses — under the condition that WHO work toward making vaccines accessible to developing countries.

“The situation is on the way to being resolved, and that the free sharing of viruses from Indonesia will resume,” Marie-Paule Kieny, head of WHO’s vaccine research initiative, told reporters in Geneva after the experts meeting.

The pharmaceutical industry has been increasing its capacity and now has production processes up and running that could be switched from seasonal and prototype flu vaccines to the pandemic vaccine at short notice, with the possibility of making 1 billion doses a year, said Gust, a vaccine expert at the University of Melbourne in Australia. That would be enough to protect 500 million people, because each would probably need two doses.

“The current number is a quantum leap ahead of where we were a year ago,” Gust said. He predicted that “the gap between what is currently possible and what is desirable in terms of protecting the entire planet will continue to be reduced over the next year or two.”

And tests have shown that lower doses also will work, which would mean that even more people could be injected with the available vaccine, he said.

But WHO said the manufacturing capacity is still short of protecting the more than 6.5 billion people in the world.

The H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus remains difficult for humans to catch, but scientists fear it could mutate into a form that could be passed easily among people and set off a flu pandemic.

Creating a pandemic-specific vaccine would have to wait until the strain emerges, but industry is ready and can simply substitute the new virus into the vaccine, said Gust.

WHO said 16 manufacturers around the world are developing prototype vaccines against H5N1. Clinical trials are under way and have been extended beyond healthy adults to the elderly and children.

“All vaccines were safe and well-tolerated in all age groups tested,” a WHO statement said.

The tests have shown for the first time that people can be protected against varieties of H5N1 that already exist, it said.

“Some of the vaccines work with low doses of antigen, which means that significantly more vaccine doses can be available in case of pandemic,” WHO said. Antigen is a vaccine’s active ingredient.

WHO is spearheading a $10 billion effort to prepare for a flu pandemic, with one of the aims to help developing countries build their own vaccine production facilities.

More than 100 flu vaccine experts attended the meeting.

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