Flu vaccine manufacturers have pledged to as much as triple their production capacity within the next four years to help prepare for a pandemic, a top corporate executive said on Saturday.
David Stout, president, pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline, told a session at the World Economic Forum that the move follows fresh cooperation with governments, leading to research on 28 possible pandemic flu vaccines and speedier and more efficient production methods.
The news came at a time of growing concern among business leaders of the effect of a pandemic, the impact of which was studied during a series of simulation exercises among executives at Davos.
Mr Stout said that vaccines offered “the best approach” to tackling the virus, although it could be several months after a pandemic is first identified because they would have to be distributed.
However, he said GSK - the only company with both flu drugs and vaccines - had also spent an additional £50m increasing output of its inhaled antiviral drug Relenza, production of which should reach 15m units this year.
The renewed vaccines activity follows a pledge by US President George Bush late last year of substantial support for new research by flu manufacturers, and the European Union continues to debate similar partnerships with industry.
Anthony Fauci from the US National Institutes of Health said there was some scope for the increased use of pneumococcal vaccine and other measures that could limit the impact of secondary infections caused by a pandemic.
However, he said recent research into the highly lethal 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic suggested that the primary cause of death was from primary flu infections, against which a new vaccine was the best defence.
He said increased seasonal flu vaccination, while providing no protection against bird flu, would help preparations by strengthening manufacturing capacity which could be switched to a pandemic vaccine once available.
“Pandemics happen,” he said. “Sooner or later, it’s likely there will be one. But no-one can give a (probability). Molecular evolution is not that simple. But it would be unconscienable if the world did not prepare.”
David Nabarro, the United Nations’ “flu tsar”, said business as well as non-governmental organisations would play a central role in trying to limit any pandemic, and encouraged companies to come forward and take initiatives.
He said that they could help communicate the risks and help limit the fall-out and endorsed plans to hold discussions with industry leaders every two months to exchange ideas.
He warned of the danger of “false alarms” of a pandemic which “could cause even more damage,” stressing the WHO would provide notification of the rising risk of any outbreak.
The executive board of the World Health Organisation on Friday agreed that countries could adopt early new International Health Regulations to tackle a pandemic through enhanced cooperation on disease surveillance, reporting and information sharing.
It also released a draft containment plan with recommendations as part of an effort to stop a mutated version of the current H5N1 bird flu virus spreading among humans, through use of quarantining, “social distance” and antiviral drugs for treatment and as a prophylactic around the area of an initial outbreak.
A report commissioned by the World Economic Forum estimated the probability of a pandemic at 1-10 per cent for this year and up until 2015, with severe consequences if it took place.