Up to 500 million doses of vaccine can now be produced, far short of the amount that would be needed if people begin falling ill from bird flu en masse. Indonesia and other developing countries in Asia fear the limited supply of vaccine would be out of reach for them, even though they provided the viruses to make it.
A so-called virtual stockpile, which can be built from countries that agree to donate a portion of their vaccine, could guarantee some vaccine would be equitably distributed within the developing world in the event of a pandemic, Dr. David Heymann, WHO's top flu official, told The Associated Press. A long-term goal would be for poor countries to receive enough technology and training to produce vaccines.
"What we need to do and want to do is develop mechanisms that will permit countries to have access to vaccines if they need it," he said, adding that Brazil and India are involved in projects to produce vaccines with help from experts.
Indonesia was sharply criticized after announcing last month it would not resume sending human bird flu virus samples to the WHO unless the agency could guarantee the specimens would not be used commercially.
Under the system used for the past 50 years, countries send flu virus specimens to WHO, which are made available to the global community for public health purposes, including vaccine development.
But Indonesia — the nation hardest hit by H5N1 bird flu, with 63 human deaths — has not shared any viruses this year.
Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari announced last month that the country had agreed to work with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. to make a bird flu vaccine. Under the accord, Indonesia will provide H5N1 samples in exchange for Baxter's expertise in vaccine production.
Supari said Thursday that Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general, has promised Indonesia's virus samples would not be made available to vaccine manufacturers for commercial use.
WHO has said a letter will be sent to Supari outlining the agency's position. Heymann would not comment on the letter, but said he hopes Indonesia will resume sending virus samples immediately. A meeting with several countries will be held this month in Jakarta to discuss vaccine development and virus sharing.
WHO closely monitors H5N1 strains to ensure the virus is not changing in a way that could allow it to easily spread among people.
Bird flu has killed at least 167 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003. It remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been linked to contact with birds. But experts fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.