(recasts with quotes from WHO briefing)
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Drug companies would need four years to meet global demand for bird flu vaccines if a pandemic broke out today, but new technology could significantly boost production by 2014, a study said on Tuesday.
Doses of vaccine tailored to the actual strain of pandemic influenza that emerges would not be available until four months after it is identified, it said.
Consulting firm Oliver Wyman gathered confidential data from drugmakers for the study which projected at least a doubling of production by 2014 mainly due to vaccines being made in cells in a lab dish instead of chicken eggs.
The study was carried out with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).
"The bottom line is that the capacity to make pandemic vaccines has tripled over the last two years ... this is mainly driven by improvements in production yields and also in dose-sparing technologies," Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the WHO initiative for vaccine research, told a news conference.
"We still don’t have enough to cover the whole world in the early months of a pandemic, even though the situation has improved."
Currently, drug makers could make up to 2.5 billion doses of pandemic vaccines in one year, meaning it would take four years to meet global demand, the study said. In a best-case scenario, they could make 7.7 billion doses in 1.5 years.
RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK
Manufacturers hunting for the best vaccines to stop the deadly disease face a race against the clock if the H5N1 strain of influenza now circulating in birds mutates and starts spreading easily among humans, as many researchers fear.
At least 20 firms are working on pandemic vaccines, Kieny said. Western makers including Europe’s biggest drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L), France’s Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA), Switzerland’s Novartis NOVN.VX and Baxter International (BAX.N) of the United States accounted for most of the expanded capacity.
Production capacity was expected to increase to 5.1-14.7 billion doses by 2014, taking 12-28 months to meet global demand, the study said.
"The big increase between now and 2014 is due to the coming on to the market of vaccines made on cell cultures," Kieny said. "But this is still a projection."
Even by 2014, not all countries would have access to pandemic vaccine in the first six to nine months after the pandemic erupted, she added. There was concern that "developing countries will have little or no vaccines at the beginning".
The WHO, a United Nations agency, was making available a total of $12 million in grants to 11 developing countries to help them develop vaccine manufacturing capacity, she said.
Current demand for seasonal influenza vaccine is about 500 million doses a year, whereas drug makers currently have the capacity to make about 800 million doses, Kieny said.
Bird flu has killed 255 people out of 408 infected worldwide since 2003, according to the WHO. The toll includes a 23-year-old woman in Vietnam who died on Saturday. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn)