January 23, 2008 / 12:33 AM / 12 years ago

Don't rely on drugs to delay flu pandemic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vaccines and drugs will not be enough to slow or prevent a pandemic of influenza, according to a U.S. government report released on Tuesday.

Roosters are displayed at a wholesale market in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, January 17, 2008. Vaccines and drugs will not be enough to slow or prevent a pandemic of influenza, according to a U.S. government report released on Tuesday. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirms what most experts have been stressing for years — that the pharmaceutical industry cannot be relied on alone to protect the world from bird flu.

The GAO, the investigational arm of Congress, reached its own conclusion independently.

“The use of antivirals and vaccines to forestall the onset of a pandemic would likely be constrained by their uncertain effectiveness and limited availability,” the GAO report reads.

Health experts almost universally agree that a global epidemic — a pandemic — of influenza is inevitable and even overdue. Flu is always circulating but, every few decades, a completely new strain emerges and makes millions sicker than usual.

One prime suspect is the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. It is entrenched in poultry across much of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, pops up regularly in Europe and has forced the slaughter of hundreds of millions of birds.

It also occasionally infects people, killing 219 of the 351 people infected in 14 countries since 2003.

Quick use of antiviral drugs, especially Roche AG and Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Tamiflu, can save lives. A vaccine would also help, the GAO report noted.

But supplies of both are low and a vaccine would have to be formulated to match the precise strain causing a pandemic — a process that currently takes months.

Many countries have no way to even keep track of outbreaks, meaning the virus could spread unnoticed.

“The delayed use of antivirals and the emergence of antiviral resistance in influenza strains could limit their effectiveness,” the GAO report said.

“Current antiviral production capacity is inadequate to reach the number of antivirals WHO (World Health Organization) estimates will be needed to contain a pandemic,” it added.

“Increasing global production capacity of vaccines and antivirals will take several years as new production facilities are built, materials necessary for production are acquired, and the necessary approval is received to market these medical products in various countries.”

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department noted it has been aware of all the issues raised by the GAO and said this is why its pandemic plan includes other ways to limit the spread of a new virus, including closing schools and promoting hygiene measures such as hand washing.

“Our preparations are broad and deep,” the Health and Human Services Department said in its comment on the GAO report.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by John O'Callaghan

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