Updated on 14 May 2013
The WHO has recommended that all countries stock up enough pandemic influenza antiviral medicines like Tamiflu by Roche and Relenza by GlazoSmithKline. "While we continue to do much of the preparation work, there is no decision yet as to how far to push forward the development and whether we need to make the vaccine. But if we do need to make the vaccine, it cannot be done overnight. It typically takes four-to-six months for companies to produce the first doses of vaccine and then it takes some more time for production to take place," a senior WHO official explained to BioSpectrum.
Learning the hard way
This outbreak has brought back horrific flashbacks of swine flu or H1N1 pandemic of 2009 that revealed the unpreparedness of the industry to handle an epidemic that had the potential to turn into a pandemic. The first reported cases of H1N1 came in August 2009 and the industry had the vaccines ready for commercial use by October, by which time the economic losses were humungous. This time around however, it took the industry majors two months to begin the process of preparation of the vaccine.
The Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) formed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009 to handle the crisis, currently operates 150 laboratories in 111 countries. The WHO Collaborating Center in Beijing, China, jumped into action immediately after the Avian Influenza A (H7N9) virus was detected. The viruses were immediately isolated and shipped to all the Essential Regulatory Laboratories of GISRS and other WHO Collaborating Centers for tests, assessment and candidate vaccine virus development for pandemic preparedness. Classical re-assortment and reverse genetics, the technologies that were developed during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, were bettered and are now being used to develop high-growth re-assortants that would help in vaccine development and production.
So far, the WHO has classified this outbreak level as class III epidemic (transmission between animals and limited transmission between animals and humans) and unless the level is raised to four (transmission between humans), vaccine manufacturing will not commence. Many of the big players in the influenza vaccine manufacturing domain have nonetheless began screening the right seed strains in order to eventually produce the vaccine.
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) stated that the industry seems to have learnt from their mistakes made in 2009 and seems to be much better prepared this time around. "I think we are in a much better place than we were before the pandemic of 2009. Our ongoing initiatives are starting to provide results," said Dr Robin Robinson, BARDA, at the WHO global conference earlier this month.