LONDON – With the right coordination, international commitment and about $13 million, scientists could deliver within a year a candidate vaccine to combat global flu outbreaks, the World Health Organization (search) said Friday.
Global health experts agree the world is overdue for the next influenza pandemic, and in the wake of SARS (search) and bird flu epidemics, have seized the opportunity over the last year or so to push preparedness up the political agenda worldwide.
A vaccine is considered a key element to that preparedness.
The three flu pandemics that hit in the last century, and the ones that came before them, spread around the world before health officials had the chance to even identify the strain, let alone make a vaccine to combat it.
Now, for the first time, surveillance has improved to such a degree that there's a chance scientists could get a jump on a pandemic and produce a vaccine that would limit the damage.
"It is not only possible, but also important, that influenza pandemic vaccines be made available ... and there's a shared responsibility needed to make that happen," said Klaus Stohr, coordinator of the global influenza program at the WHO.
To that end, about 50 experts including vaccine makers, regulators and government public health experts met Thursday and Friday at the U.N. health agency's headquarters in Geneva to brainstorm what it will take to make a pandemic flu vaccine available and how to speed up the process.
"There is currently too little momentum in the development of pandemic influenza vaccines," Stohr said. "We have a huge window of opportunity now."
"We could now get our groundwork done, our homework done, to ensure that when it matters most for vaccine production it can happen immediately," he said. "We don't want to miss our chance."
The experts concluded that issues such as licensing of vaccine technology, consistency among national regulatory agencies and the testing of mock vaccines can be sorted out now to make it easier to produce a safe and effective vaccine in an emergency.
Money is one of the main obstacles, Stohr said.
Two candidate vaccines based on the current bird flu virus circulating in Asia are being developed, but rich countries and medical research foundations will have to come up with about $13 million per vaccine if those are to make it through the necessary experiments to prove themselves within a year.
These vaccines are not necessarily the ones that would be used in an actual pandemic, since the vaccine would have to match the flu strain, but experts have determined that, at the moment, the most likely pandemic flu strain would be a mutated version of the type of bird flu strain hitting Asia.
Even if the next flu pandemic is not the Asian bird flu strain, the process of testing and producing the vaccines would be the same and a trial run can only make things go more smoothly when the time comes.