Improve flu vaccine access for pandemic: expert

The world needs a better way to obtain flu vaccines in a pandemic, says a U.S. expert who reviewed the World Health Organization's response to swine flu.
It was slow and difficult to distribute H1N1 vaccine to poor countries, says Dr. Harvey Fineberg. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone/Associated Press)

The world needs a better way to obtain flu vaccines in a pandemic, says a U.S. expert who reviewed the World Health Organization's response to swine flu.

Negotiating swine flu vaccine to redistribute to poor countries was cumbersome, said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, who chaired a committee examining international health regulations and WHO's pandemic response.

"That was very problematic in the pandemic, it was slow and it was difficult," Fineberg told a news briefing on Monday.

"Everyone recognizes that it remains a very serious impediment to the world's ability to deal with a future pandemic."

In comparison, rich countries were able to buy H1N1 vaccines for their populations more easily, Fineberg said.

The committee's draft report, released earlier this month, did not look at obstacles individual countries faced in negotiating flu vaccine deals.

Panelists will think carefully about what can be done in advance of a next pandemic. H1N1 showed there is little that can be done in the midst of such a public health emergency, Fineberg said.

Vaccine hurdles

No amount of advance planning could help the UN agency to deliver vaccines donated by rich countries and pharmaceutical companies to people in the developing world more readily, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.

"The hurdles that slowed us down arise from the lack of harmonization of registration for medicines and vaccines, issues of liability that are part of company policies and the simple fact that no country is willing to give up its sovereign right to authorize the marketing of a medical product," Chan told the review committee.

Another hurdle was maintaining a "cold chain" to preserve vaccines before the doses are given, Fineberg said.

The panel's draft report found no evidence of malfeasance or inappropriate influence by industry in the agency's pandemic decisions.

The authors recognized the difficulty and complexity of measuring the severity of the pandemic, but Fineberg said it will take more time and effort to develop consistent and measurable descriptions to judge severity.

The draft report also recommended strengthening how WHO manages conflicts of interest in the spirit of good practice, rather than as a remedy for an error, he said.

The panel will issue its final report before the WHO's annual assembly of ministers, being held from May 16-24.

Meanwhile, swine flu cases continue to mount in some parts of the world.

Health officials in Venezeula said Monday the number of H1N1 cases in the country has risen to more than 400.

In northern Mexico, authorities have confirmed four people died of swine flu in the border state of Chihuahua. The outbreak is associated with cases in Texas and New Mexico, said Chihuahua state Gov. Cesar Duarte.

With files from The Associated Press