A top official from the UN World Health Organisation called for an increase in global capacity to produce flu vaccines, warning that recently boosted production capacity is not enough to handle any human pandemic.
Margaret Chan, assistant director-general for communicable diseases at the UN health agency, said that the worldwide capacity to immediately produce seasonal flu vaccines had recently been stepped up from 300 million doses to 425 million doses, but added that “that is a very small production capacity.”
WHO officials said it was impossible to give a number of the total doses that would be sufficient for any pandemic because of several unknown variables, including what age group it would target and how easily transmissible the pandemic virus would be.
She said that WHO would work with countries around the world to look at “what are some of the options to increase production capacity in a very fast manner.”
Speaking at a news conference at a two-day gathering of Group of Seven industrialised countries and Mexico, Chan said that participants had discussed ways in which developing countries as well industrialised countries could contribute to vaccine production. She did not provide details.
Italian and US health officials signed an accord to strengthen cooperation between their two countries in tackling cancer, bioterrorism and rare diseases.
Italy and the United States were holding a bilateral workshop on their efforts against health risks, including infectious diseases, during the Rome conference.
Bird flu was “top of the list” on their agenda, said Michael Hollingdale from the U.S. Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Hollingdale said the United States and Italy could share resources to strengthen surveillance, diagnosis and treatment of rare diseases.
He said the two countries would work on developing drugs that could be used if bird flu mutates into a form that can be transmitted easily to and between humans, including the search for an alternative to the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.
Tamiflu is believed to be the most effective medicine to treat the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in humans, and is believed to be the best hope in treating people during a pandemic.
“If the virus becomes resistant to Tamiflu, that’s it,” Hollingdale said.
Bird flu has ravaged poultry stocks across Southeast Asia since 2003, jumping to humans and killing at least 64 people.
“There’s a real sense of urgency,” Hollingdale said. “We feel that Italy is one of our leading partners.”
Conference delegates were also to discuss chemical, radiological and nuclear threats, the Italian Health Ministry said.