Friday, April 15, 2005

Out for a duck

This week sees the publication of a two-page piece about Avian influenza, aka “bird flu”, which was co-authored by my colleague in Bangkok. Essentially the piece points out that bird flu is now endemic in Asia with little chance of being eliminated from the domestic flocks in the next few years. It goes on to explain that this means there is a reservoir of this virus from which something nasty, and more easily transmissible between humans, could emerge.

In some rich countries governments are hoping to provide a first line of defence against any consequent outbreak of human influenza with the antiviral drug Tamiflu. They are then hoping that work underway now on a vaccine will enable them to gear up production rapidly if, and when, a human influenza pandemic emerges from the avian influenza. But even at current rates of antiviral production, all the countries that want Tamiflu will not see their orders filled for a couple of years. I get the strong impression from the World Health Organisation that it feels like it is having to chivvy governments and companies along in order to get this basic vaccine development done. And I wonder if I detect some degree of frustration at the lack of progress?

In the event of a human influenza pandemic, how poor countries will tackle the problem, when they have no facilities for making vaccines even if the recipe is known, is entirely unclear. Should a pandemic emerge, countries with the facilities to produce vaccines would service the needs of their own population first.These are the rich nations.

Of course everyone wants to make sure that their own country is served first, but I wonder whether global stockpiling of vaccines and anti-retrovirals might be an idea as well, so that these could be focused on areas where epidemics break out—in the hope of preventing a pandemic (a global outbreak). SARS was prevented from spreading worldwide by stamping it out in a very careful matter. On the other hand, of course human influenza is a different matter, and much more easily transmitted.

Given that this is not a predictable event, it is really tough to come up with answers. As the Asian tsunami showed the solutions seem so obvious after the event.

The spread of bird flu in Asia
Bird flu is now endemic in Asia. This is frightening for everyone
Apr 14th 2005

Finally, a short little item from the week previously about a bioprospecting operation out in Panama. This one requires a subscription.

Finding medicines in odd places
Searching for drugs in a tropical country
Apr 7th 2005