updated 10/23/2007 2:00:30 PM ET 2007-10-23T18:00:30

People in the developed world could have access to an effective vaccine against pandemic flu within the next three years — if a worldwide outbreak actually strikes — the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

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The U.N. health agency said recent progress means the global production capacity will rise to 4.5 billion courses of treatment by 2010. But that would still leave some 2 billion people in poorer countries without access to a vaccine.

As recently as last year, the world's pharmaceutical companies would only have been able to produce 100 million courses of the two shots needed for full protection.

Because virtually no one will have natural immunity to a new flu strain, having a vaccine available as quickly as possible will be crucial to stopping any worldwide outbreak.

Several pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in making vaccines for the H5N1 strain using an ingredient that boosts the human body's immune system to fight the virus. That would allow vaccine makers to stretch the amount of vaccine available. Coupled with growing political pressure on drugs companies to increase capacity, WHO said the supply gap could close dramatically by the end of the decade.

"Although this is significant progress, it is still far from the 6.7 billion immunization courses that would be needed ... to protect the whole world," said Marie-Paule Kieny, the director of WHO's vaccine research program.

Most pharmaceutical companies capable of producing a pandemic vaccine are in Europe and North America, she said, meaning those regions will have the best access in the event of an outbreak.

Start-up grants using funding provided by the United States and Japan have also gone to Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Vietnam to set up vaccine production facilities there, Kieny told reporters in Geneva.

But some Asian, Latin American and most African countries currently have no access to a pandemic flu vaccine, she said.

Kieny said that experts recommend meeting the predicted shortage of over 4 billion doses — equivalent to 2 billion courses of treatment — by using a "live" but weakened virus to produce vaccines in the event of a pandemic.

But because of the difficulties involved in producing a live virus vaccine — which could inadvertently produce a pandemic strain if there was a lab accident — only limited studies have been done on this strategy, said Dr. John Treanor, a vaccines expert at the University of Rochester.

In addition, governments should consider promoting national immunization drives for seasonal flu to give pharmaceutical companies an incentive to further raise and maintain their vaccine production facilities, according to the WHO advisory committee on pandemic flu preparedness which met in Geneva last week.

Experts believe H5N1 is the most likely candidate to spark a flu pandemic, and nearly all potential pandemic vaccines have been based on this strain. But if another flu subtype, such as H7 or H9, ignites the next pandemic, it is unlikely the H5N1 vaccines would be effective.

Questions over access to a pandemic vaccine have led to friction between WHO and developing nations such as Indonesia, who argue that they must receive a fair share of any vaccine, especially if it is developed using viruses collected from their territory.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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