Health officials weigh supply of global flu vaccines

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Health officials today sought to find ways to increase the global supply of vaccines that could be used to protect the world's most vulnerable people against H1N1 flu.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged executives from 30 pharmaceutical companies to work to boost production of seasonal vaccines while also developing an injection for possible use against the newly-discovered strain.

In remarks later to the World Health Organisation's annual congress, he said it was essential that drugmakers work together with governments to shield the world from the worst impacts of the flu, which has killed 79 people and infected nearly 10,000.

"Partnerships with the private sector are absolutely vital," Ban told representatives of the WHO's 193 member governments, urging them to think beyond their borders in their response to H1N1, which is a genetic mix of swine, bird and human viruses.

Most of the people catching the flu so far have experienced mild symptoms like fever and nausea, but pregnant women and those with other health problems such as HIV/AIDS and diabetes could be at high risk from severe effects from the strain.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said aggressive steps were being taken to boost production of seasonal flu vaccines, which could later be shifted into pandemic injections "if that is necessary."

But she told a news briefing the United States has not placed advance orders for H1N1 flu vaccines, as have France, Britain, Belgium, Finland and others.

"There is still so much uncertainty about this virus that it is really premature for us to even make a determination about how many people would appropriately be vaccinated, in what order, how many doses will be required, at what point. All those discussions are still very much underway," Sebelius said.



FINITE SUPPLIES

Rich and poor countries are seeking at the week-long World Health Assembly to settle their differences about how samples of viruses should be shared with pharmaceutical makers, who will use them to develop and sell vaccines to fight the H1N1 flu.

Developing nations including Indonesia have previously called for restrictions on the powers of drugmakers to patent virus samples and then offer vaccines at an unaffordable price.

In his remarks to the World Health Assembly, Ban said poor states with weak medical services could be at particular threat from the flu and will need help from richer countries to reduce the world's exposure to its risks.

"Global solidarity must be at the heart of the world's response to crisis. Solidarity in the face of this particular outbreak must mean that all have access to drugs and vaccines.

"It means that virus samples and data are shared. It means that self-defeating restrictions on trade and travel are avoided," he stressed.

But one international official said there would be battles ahead as governments try to secure finite supplies of antiviral drugs and vaccines to protect their populations.

"Enabling poor countries to be able to access the various medical supplies they need is going to be a critical political and technical issue," he said. "This issue will require political attention."

According to the latest WHO tally, 40 countries have had confirmed H1N1 infections, with the largest concentrations in Mexico, the United States and Canada. Big clusters of infection have also been reported in Japan, Britain and Spain.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has said the H1N1 virus has put the world on the brink of pandemic, at Phase 5 of the agency's 6-point scale, but has not yet formally declared that a pandemic is underway.

Sebelius said there had been "much discussion in the last 24 hours about when and if to go to Level 6" and stressed that very little would change if the WHO issues the top alert, given that global preparations for pandemic are in full swing.

An escalation of the alert to Phase 6 would send a signal to pharmaceutical companies that they would see enough demand to justify production of an H1N1 pandemic vaccine, which could be mixed with the seasonal flu injection or offered separately.

Executives at today's meeting said they were primed to respond to the crisis, but have not been given specific directions so far.

"If we come to the joint decision that we have to shift to the production of H1N1 we do have the capacity to do so," said Sjirk Kok, vice-president of Solvay Biologicals.

"Companies must continue with the seasonal vaccine. There has been no request to stop" Jean Stephenne, president of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) Biologicals, told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence) (For more Reuters stories on swine flu, click on [nFLU]) (For more Reuters swine flu coverage, please click here: here ) (For a graphic, FLU/UPDATE24 - Map of the world locating latest reported cases of Influenza A (H1N1), go to: here) (For WHO information on swine flu, go to: here)

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