February 24, 2009

Drug Makers Not Ready For Potential Bird Flu Pandemic

If a bird flu pandemic were to break out today, it would take the world's drug manufacturers four years to meet the demand, according to a World Health Organization study.

The best case scenario would still require a minimum of 18 months to develop enough flu vaccine doses for the world's population in the event of a bird flu pandemic, authors of the study said.

Global demand for traditional flu vaccines is near 500 million doses annually, but capacity is running at 800 million doses a year and climbing up to 1.7 billion doses in 2014, according to AFP.

"We still don't have enough production capability to cover the whole world in the early months of the pandemic," said Marie-Paule Kieny, who heads the World Health Organization's initiative for vaccine research. "...and what is worrying especially is that the capacity to make seasonal vaccines ... is now much larger than the demand for these vaccines."

"We are now building a surplus capacity. What will the manufacturers do with it? Either they maintain it... or they close some of them down," she said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) study showed that technology is driving drug makers' ability to create increased capacity.

"The bottom line is that the capacity to make pandemic vaccines has tripled over the last two years ... this is mainly driven by improvements in production yields and also in dose-sparing technologies," Kieny said during a news conference.

Currently, drug makers could make up to 2.5 billion doses of pandemic vaccines in one year, meaning it would take four years to meet global demand, WHO and IFPMA said in the study.

Kieny told reporters that at least 20 drug manufacturers are working on pandemic vaccines. Those include Europe's biggest drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, France's Sanofi-Aventis, Switzerland's Novartis and Baxter International in the United States, according to Reuters.

"The big increase between now and 2014 is due to the coming on to the market of vaccines made on cell cultures," Kieny said. "But this is still a projection."

So far, bird flu has infected 408 people since 2003, 255 of whom died due to the infection.


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