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Flu pandemic looms as major global crisis

The World Health Organization (WHO)  urged governments to provide funds to drug makers developing vaccines against a feared influenza pandemic, which could kill millions of people.
/ Source: Reuters

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday urged governments to provide funds to drug makers developing vaccines against a feared influenza pandemic, which could kill millions of people.

Representatives of 11 drug companies, governments and vaccine licensing agencies ended a two-day meeting amid fears Asia’s lethal bird flu virus endemic could mutate and infect humans.

Klaus Stohr, head of the WHO’s global influenza program, said companies were reluctant to invest some 11 million euros ($14.15 million) to develop a vaccine that may never be used.

“There is a need to raise the profile of pandemic preparedness as a matter of national security planning,” Stohr told a news conference.

Funding was the “most important barrier” to making vaccines against a pandemic that could strike a third of the world population with a fatality rate of about 1 percent, he said.

“It looks as if the companies will not come up with this money -- somebody else has to step in,” Stohr said.

Japanese officials said they were considering backing four Japanese drug makers in developing a vaccine for clinical testing in the country, he said.

Few doses available
Only two drug makers -- Aventis-Pasteur of France and British manufacturer Chiron Corp have been working on potential pandemic vaccines with funds from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Both are producing clinical batches of a vaccine and testing is expected to begin on humans and animals early next year.

In the event of a pandemic, vaccines, antiviral agents and antibiotics to treat secondary infections will be in short supply and unequally distributed, said the WHO.

The greatest influenza pandemic occurred in 1918-1919, causing an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths, more than were killed in World War one which preceded the outbreak.

“Pandemic influenza will be the largest public health infectious disease emergency we ever face in most countries and certainly globally,” said Arlene King, a director at the Canadian Public Health Agency.

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have projected that a pandemic today would result in between 2 million and 7.4 million deaths globally.

Luc Hessel, an executive director for Aventis Pasteur, said: “There is a lot of commitment and effort by the industry to face the current challenge. But he said, “production capacity cannot be doubled overnight.”