On Tuesday, the World Health Organization's top flu expert said the group is on the verge of declaring the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years. Confirmed community spread in a second region beyond North America would trigger moving to phase 6, signifying a full-blown pandemic. It's important to note that a move to phase 6 would reflect the geographic spread of the disease, not its severity.
Early projections of 2,000 to 2,500 cases in the United States by the end of May completely missed the mark, indicating the disease spread is far worse than expected. On May 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were "upwards of 100,000" cases in the country, with 7,415 cases confirmed at that point.
As the H1N1 flu seemed mild, over time headlines gave way to other stories. Still, health officials are worried it might return in a more virulent form this winter. If everything points to pandemic and there are concerns over increased severity, where, then, are our promised vaccines?
In the movie Outbreak, it took Dustin Hoffman only a few hours to develop a cure or vaccine once he got his hands on the culprit monkey. But real life isn't as simple. Back when the flu first broke out, pharmaceutical companies said they had stockpiles of current flu vaccines and would develop a new one once they received the virus seed from the WHO. Some countries had preemptively ordered the new vaccine candidate.
Indeed, the WHO may be delaying declaring pandemic because it has to ensure that countries are able to deal with the new situation and also handle any public reaction. Without a vaccine, or proper anti-viral medication, that would be harder.
Well, today, drug companies, including Sanofi-Aventis (SNY), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Novartis (NVS) all said they are on track to have the vaccine ready for the northern hemisphere autumn after receiving the seed virus samples from the World Health Organization over the past two weeks.
This may be an empty statement though, as it's not clear how much vaccine they will be able to manufacture. It all depends on how easily the new virus strain grows within a commercial production environment, but early estimates pegged the time at four to six months, subject to regulatory approval. The H1N1 vaccine will have to be first tested on ferrets and then on humans in clinical trials before regulatory authorities can approve it. Although no doubt they would expedite the process in this case and the vaccine could be ready in time for winter. But what about the Australian winter, about to hit soon? It doesn't seem like more could be done at this point.
A GSK spokesman said that it will take two weeks to determine the yields before the company could start mass manufacturing. At least, it seems the drug companies have used the time to prepare themselves to the task, increasing flu vaccine capacity, which would enable them to more easily meet the needs of the world, and of course, fill their coffers with cash too.
According to Reuters, "The WHO estimates vaccine makers could produce 4.9 billion pandemic flu shots a year in the best-case scenario," which is 1.6 billion short of the globe's population. And not only is this the best case scenario, it doesn't take into account possible requirements for more than one shot a person.
At least, anti-viral medication, or flu treatment, such as Relenza and Tamiflu have been stocked by governments following recent outbreaks. But for now, it seems we're far off from any sci-fi quick and easy solution to this virus.
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