Beijing: World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan on Friday urged governments to prepare for a likely second wave of swine flu cases, cautioning they will face tough decisions on how to dispense vaccines.
Chan’s statement came as more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies around the world scramble to produce a safe and effective vaccine against A(H1N1) influenza, with the northern hemisphere’s winter fast approaching.
“We cannot say for certain whether the worst is over or the worst is yet to come,” Chan said via videotaped address at the start of a three-day symposium on flu in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We need to be prepared for whatever surprises this capricious new virus delivers next... constant random mutation is the survival mechanism of the microbial world.
“We also need to prepare for a second or even a third wave of spread as typically seen in past pandemics.”
About 1,800 people have died since the A(H1N1) virus was first uncovered in April, according to the latest update from the WHO issued this week. The vast majority of those deaths have been recorded in the Americas.
The WHO declared a global pandemic in June, and the UN health agency now says there are confirmed cases in more than 170 countries.
While the epidemic appears to be weakening in the southern hemisphere, preparations should be stepped up in the northern hemisphere as the seasonal flu season approaches, Chan said.
“Like all influenza viruses, H1N1 has the advantage of surprise on its side,” she said.
“We have the advantage of science and rational investigation on our side, supported by... data collection, analysis and communication that are unprecedented in their power.”
Chan said the issue of how to ensure adequate vaccine supplies worldwide needed to be tackled “head on.”
“We need to gather advice on priority groups for initial protection,” Chan said.
“This is one of the most difficult decisions governments around the world will need to make, especially as we know that supplies will be extremely limited for some months to come.”
The WHO said earlier this week that countries in the northern hemisphere alone had ordered more than one billion doses of swine flu vaccine, sparking warnings about shortages, given the intense demand and production delays.
A Chinese drug company, Sinovac Biotech, this week announced positive preliminary data from its clinical trials after giving test subjects just one dose of its vaccine.
But many experts have said that double doses will be needed because most people have no immunity to A(H1N1).
WHO assistant director general Keiji Fukuda said that nations should share information about swine flu vaccines in the same way that data about the virus has been shared.
“In this kind of situation, the access to vaccines, the access to other critical benefits by all countries, is really as important as the sharing of information on viruses,” Fukuda said.
In addition to speeding up access to vaccines and anti-viral drugs, the WHO response to a possible second wave of swine flu cases would focus on tracking and monitoring outbreaks and providing information and support, he said.
“The preparedness undertaken by many countries and organisations really did make a significant difference in the response” to the virus so far, Fukuda said.
“It is clear however that we still need to continue to work on the preparedness aspect. What this really means is that we need to improve awareness and knowledge and strengthen national and international capacities.”