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Health agency to push companies to make vaccine in poor nations - extended

The World Health Organization will try to retain access to flu virus samples from Indonesia and other countries by pushing drugmakers to expand manufacturing in developing nations, lowering the cost of vaccines.

Agency officials will discuss the plan with as many as 12 countries meeting in Jakarta next week in an effort to avoid entering legal agreements - with Thailand, Vietnam, China and other nations hit by bird flu - that would slow shot production during a lethal pandemic, said David Heymann, the WHO's assistant director for communicable diseases. While companies benefit from flu specimens gleaned in poor countries for use designing vaccines, those nations have trouble paying for the resulting products, which are often made in the US or Europe.

Making the vaccines in the Asian nations with bird flu could lower the costs, defusing resentment, according to health officials. „Some companies might be able to transfer some of their bulk capacity to developing-country industries,” Heymann said in a telephone interview today. He called it a „10-year solution that will end up with more production capacity” for flu vaccines. The Geneva-based agency, an arm of the United Nations, aims to preserve access to viruses that have been freely shared among countries and companies for 50 years to make vaccines against influenza. Indonesia's health ministry said it will delay shipment of viruses to the WHO, at least until May, while legal protections against use by vaccine makers are written.

Sanofi-Aventis SA wants the WHO to devise an allocation system to ensure that pandemic shot supplies get to poor countries, said Pascal Barollier, a spokesman for the Paris-based company. The drugmaker is counting on the WHO to make sure that dangerous flu viruses are available for research and vaccine production, he said. „We hope that the WHO will be able to resolve this issue,” he said today in a telephone interview. „We're here to receive whatever strain is relevant to vaccine and produce as many doses as we can in the shortest amount of time.” Other vaccine makers include GlaxoSmithKline Plc in London and Novartis AG in Basel, Switzerland. Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, said last week that vaccine companies make flu shots at prices Indonesians can't afford. „Poorer countries shouldn't become a commercial target,” she said in a March 14 interview.

„From the beginning we have upheld free sample sharing openly to the world,” said Triono Soendoro, director-general of Indonesia's National Institute of Health Research and Development, in an interview yesterday. „We feel this move was misused.” The WHO's Heymann said a resolution may lie in partnerships between vaccine makers and poorer countries. Indonesia already makes polio vaccine and has a well-developed regulatory system that might allow it to perform some of the final portions of vaccine manufacture in a few years, he said. „We would welcome all countries that can safely and effectively produce vaccine to make vaccine for flu,” he said. Producing flu vaccine in poorer countries would provide abundant, relatively cheaply made supplies during a pandemic, he said. Some countries might take years to develop manufacturing, and an international stockpile of pandemic vaccine will be needed for them until then.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan will meet with flu-vaccine makers worldwide after the Jakarta conference to discuss what can be done to maintain access to samples, Heymann said. The H5N1 bird flu has struck 280 people worldwide and killed 169 of them since late 2003, according to the WHO. Scientists have said the virus might kill millions if it were to start to spreading quickly in people. Indonesia, which has recorded at least 63 bird flu deaths, has an agreement with Deerfield, Illinois-based Baxter International Inc. to use its viral samples to make vaccine, which is produced in the Czech Republic. The country has designated its state-owned polio-vaccine making company to use Baxter's technology to make shots against H5N1. Other companies would be welcome to enter such agreements, Soendoro said. The Southeast Asian nation stopped sending its live viruses to collaborating centers of the WHO late last year after Australia's CSL Ltd. ltd. developed an experimental vaccine based on an Indonesian strain. „We don't want any trouble,” he said. „What we want is to set up a deal that doesn't inflict a loss to us,” Soendro said. (Bloomberg)