The race to produce vaccines against swine flu is being stepped up around the world.
For the last four months, more than thirty pharmaceutical laboratories have been tackling the new H1N1 virus. They claim they can produce more than 95 million doses a week. But despite orders from several countries, there are doubts over the efficiency of the vaccines, as well as when they will arrive on the market. Sanofi-Pasteur, one of the world’s leading producers, says deliveries are only likely to begin by late autumn or early winter. The first tests on humans should begin in August. “The problem with H1N1 is that demand for vaccines can be enormous, because as many human beings as possible will need to be protected in a minimum amount of time”, said company spokesman Albert Garcia. “We’re trying to make the doses go as far as possible, by seeing whether very small quantities of viral antigens – the vaccine’s active principle – can protect a human. That would allow us to obtain a large number of doses in a short time.” But beyond the production problems lies the question of distribution. According to several studies more than 90% of deaths from a flu pandemic could happen in developing countries. There are concerns that richer nations could monopolise many of the supplies. Fifty countries including the United States have already made big orders from laboratories since May. Given limited supplies, who gets access to treatment first will be up to health authorities to decide. “We are producers, we’ll provide as many vaccine doses as we can for countries as quickly as possible,” said Albert Garcia of Sanofi Pasteur. “It’s up to the World Health Organisation and for each country’s health services to decide priorities.” According to WHO estimations, 4.9 billion doses of vaccine could be produced in 12 months. But there are concerns over the resistance of the virus to the treatments currently available, and that it might mutate, causing delays to the production and distribution of new vaccines.