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WHO to weigh flu vaccine switch next week

GENEVA (Reuters) - World Health Organization experts will meet next week to consider whether drug makers should switch from seasonal to pandemic flu production in response to the new H1N1 strain, an official said Wednesday.

Nurses wearing protective masks walk at Pristina's main hospital, May 6, 2009. A 27-year-old woman, who was suspected to have the influenza A (H1N1), died today in hospital. Her first two tests for the virus was negative and the results of a third test from WHO are expected within days. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO director of the Initiative for Vaccine Research, told reporters that an expert committee would discuss a potential switch on May 14 in response to the flu outbreak that has raised fears of a pandemic.

“This group will be asked to provide advice to WHO on whether there is enough evidence for WHO to recommend ... that manufacturers should start to go large-scale manufacturing of Influenza A (H1N1) vaccine,” Kieny said.

Kieny said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would also meet the heads of companies manufacturing vaccines on May 19 to ensure that developing countries have access to the new vaccine.

“We want to discuss with them avenues to ensure more equitable access for developing countries to this vaccine when it is available,” she said.

At least 20 companies make flu vaccines, including Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Baxter International , Australia’s CSL, and nasal spray maker MedImmune, now part of AstraZeneca.

Unless manufacturers have more than one plant, starting to produce a vaccine for the new strain, popularly known as swine flu, would mean dropping production of seasonal flu vaccines.

But it is important to ensure plenty of supplies of vaccine for seasonal flu vaccine, which also kills at least 250,000-500,000 people a year, Kieny noted.

“We would not want to have no seasonal influenza vaccine,” she said. Manufacturers currently produce about 900 million shots for seasonal flu a year.

So before making their recommendation, experts will want more data, such as how severe the new flu strain is and whether one or two doses of vaccine will be needed.

The latest figures officially confirmed by the WHO -- more conservative than those issued by national health authorities -- show that there have been 1,658 cases of the new flu so far in 23 countries, including 30 deaths.

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Reporting by Laura MacInnis and Jonathan Lynn in Geneva and Michael Kahn and Ben Hirschler in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan