Since it emerged in Mexico earlier this month, unconfirmed cases of the disease have been reported in Spain, France, New Zealand, the US, the UK and Israel, sparking concerns that the viral strain responsible, thought to be H1N1, has pandemic potential.
To date however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not provided manufacturers with the clinical virus samples that they require to begin the lengthy vaccine development process.
In a press conference held yesterday, the WHO’s assistant director general for health security and environment Keji Fukuda explained that it is simply too early to begin making vaccines because the causative agent is yet to be categorically identified.
Dr Fukuda said that although testing has confirmed that the H1N1 strain found in 11 samples in the US is the same as in one identified in Mexico other reported outbreaks of the disease have not yet been studied.
He added that: “we have been in contact with the UN, with non-governmental agencies, with industry, and we shall continue to work with all these partners so that everyone is as informed as possible.”
Dr Fukuda’s thoughts were echoed by WHO director general Margaret Chan who said that: “A number of gaps in knowledge about the clinical features, epidemiology, and virology” of the virus have been identified and that further research is needed.
Nevertheless, global developers like Novartis and Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi Aventis, have been quick to reiterate their willingness to work with the WHO.
Sanofi spokesman Pascal Barollier said the firm "is standing ready to assess its capabilities to support public health efforts, should the WHO and other health authorities request support from influenza vaccine manufacturers."
Meanwhile, Roche and GSK have made existing stockpiles of their respective seasonal antiviral products, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir), available to the WHO’s initial response program.
Although the WHO has yet to take either firm up on the offer, the anticipation that they will do has seen the share price of both firm’s, as well as GSK’s Relenza partner Biota, advance considerablly in the past few hours.