WHO Chief Warns Against Complacency Over Swine Flu; Issue Expected To Dominate World Health Assembly Next Week
During a meeting on pandemic preparedness at WHO's Geneva-based headquarters on Friday, WHO Chief Margaret Chan warned against complacency over the H1N1 (swine flu) virus that thus far has caused relatively mild flu symptoms in the majority of cases worldwide, but continues to spread rapidly, Reuters reports.
The intergovernmental meeting is tackling the subject of "virus sharing, in which countries provide biological specimens to the international community for use by pharmaceutical companies and vaccine makers," Reuters writes. According to the news service, Indonesia had previously refused to share bird flu virus samples "without guarantees that any vaccines developed from them would be made available to poorer countries at an affordable price." Chan praised the countries with H1N1 infections for their "timely sharing of samples for risk assessment and making seed vaccine," the first step in vaccine development. Participants involved in Friday's meeting hope to "reach agreement on standards for transparency, trust, and sovereignty related to virus sample sharing," according to Reuters (Nebehay/MacInnis, Reuters, 5/15).
Concerns over containing the rapidly spreading H1N1 virus will dominate the World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting slated for next week, Reuters reports. WHO is proposing that the week-long meeting be cut short so that international health leaders can return home to respond to the virus.
The shortened meeting will postpone discussions on "international chemicals management, drug-resistant tuberculosis, food safety, viral hepatitis, counterfeit medical products, human organ and tissue transplantation, chagas disease, and the WHO's role and responsibilities in health research," until 2010, Reuters writes (MacInnis, Reuters, 5/14).
The WHO met with drug manufacturers and health experts on Thursday to discuss the impending decision over whether or not the makers of seasonal flu vaccines should switch to swine flu vaccine production, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Cheng/Jordans, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 5/14). According to Bloomberg, people attending the meeting said more information is needed before they can formulate recommendations on if and when pharmaceutical companies should start on a vaccine to protect against the H1N1 virus (Goldman, Bloomberg, 5/15). Chan is expected to issue advice to vaccine manufacturers next week, during the WHA.
The AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports that the WHO has given the Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla permission to begin producing a generic version of the antiviral Tamiflu, which has been shown to be effective in reducing the spread and symptoms of swine flu. The effort could "make the drug more accessible to poor countries," according to the paper (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 5/14).
The WHO on Friday reported that there are now 7,520 cases of H1N1 infection in 34 countries. Laboratory tests have confirmed: 2,446 cases of swine flu in Mexico, including 60 deaths; 4,298 cases, including three deaths in the U.S.; 449 cases, including one death in Canada; and eight cases, including one death in Costa Rica (WHO Influenza A(H1N1) - update 29, 5/15). The Maricopa County Department of Public Health on Thursday reported that an Arizona woman with lung disease has died from H1N1, becoming the fourth U.S. death to swine flu, Reuters reports (Gaynor, Reuters, 5/14). A New York City school administrator has become the city's first critically ill patient with swine flu, Bloomberg reports (Bloomberg, 5/15).
The WHO writes, "The following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths - Argentina (1), Australia (1), Austria (1), Belgium (1), Brazil (8), China (4), Colombia (10), Cuba (3), Denmark (1), El Salvador (4), Finland (2), France (14), Germany (12), Guatemala (3), Ireland (1), Israel (7), Italy (9), Japan (4), Netherlands (3), New Zealand (7), Norway (2), Panama (40), Poland (1), Portugal (1), Republic of Korea (3), Spain (100), Sweden (2), Switzerland (1), Thailand (2), and the United Kingdom (71)" (WHO Influenza A(H1N1) - update 29, 5/15). Additionally, the first confirmed cases of swine flu in Malaysia (Chance, Reuters, 5/15) and Peru (Bloomberg, 5/15) were reported on Friday.
Also on Thursday the WHO refuted claims by a retired Australian virologist who speculated the H1N1 virus may have originated in the eggs scientists use to grow viruses and make vaccines, and escaped as a result of human error, the New York Times reports. "We took this very seriously," Keiji Fukuda, WHO's deputy director general, said. "But the evidence suggests that this is a naturally occurring virus, not a laboratory-derived virus" (McNeil, New York Times, 5/14).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.