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Bird Flu goal scrutinized
posted by admin on 27/03/07

Groups Consider Funding Bird-Flu-Vaccine Stockpile

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Several organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are considering funding a stockpile of bird-flu vaccine as one possible way to ensure access for people in developing countries most at risk of dying from the disease.

The idea of creating a global vaccine stockpile has come to the fore at a meeting that the World Health Organization has called here. The meeting aims to bridge an impasse that emerged earlier this year after Indonesia's government decided to withhold sharing its samples of the avian-flu virus. Indonesia's health minister complained that sharing those samples helps foreign companies to develop vaccines that ordinary Indonesians would likely never be able to afford, or have access to.

Lack of access to those samples is hampering international research on the Indonesian strain of the virus and slowing the search for ways to defeat a potentially devastating illness before it mutates into a form that could easily spread among humans. Indonesia is among the countries hardest-hit by bird flu, which in most, if not all, cases, is contracted through contact with infected birds. The disease has so far killed 63 of the 81 people infected in Indonesia since 2005, according to WHO.

WHO is reaching out to the Gates Foundation, which is "extremely supportive of the general idea," says Kanwarjit Singh, a senior program officer with the Seattle-based foundation.

Funding bird-flu vaccines doesn't fall under the foundation's primary goals, which include fighting scourges that already kill millions, including AIDS and malaria. But funding avian-influenza vaccines could be a possibility because "it meets the criterion of being a vaccine solution which affects countries where the burden of disease is greatest," Dr. Singh says. He adds, however, that there are no specific proposals on the table yet.

WHO is also approaching the Geneva-based GAVI Alliance, a nonprofit group that operates with funding from various governments and the Gates Foundation and that has already allocated nearly $2 billion toward the purchase of various vaccines. GAVI's board members will formally consider a proposal from WHO in May that lays out various options but doesn't yet specify how much money would be needed.

The U.S. has been weighing whether to contribute funding, or perhaps part of its own stockpile, to developing countries, a U.S. health official said. "All nations have a responsibility to share data and virus samples," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt said in an email that offered $10 million to WHO to help make sure poor countries have access to vaccines.

A continuing standoff with Indonesia could prevent newer vaccines from being developed that are more effective at hitting the most recent strains of the virus. It isn't clear how large a stockpile would need to be or how much it would cost. Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the initiative for vaccine research at WHO, says that vaccine makers would likely consider offering tiered pricing for poorer countries as they do with medications for AIDS and other diseases.

At the opening of this week's meeting, David Heymann, WHO's assistant director-general for communicable diseases, suggested that vaccine makers could agree to set aside a percentage of vaccine production for use in developing countries, with guaranteed purchase from WHO. GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Sanofi-Aventis SA produce versions of a bird-flu vaccine that appear to be somewhat effective. The U.S. government purchased enough of Sanofi's vaccine for several million people.

GlaxoSmithKline, said "tiered pricing is our default mechanism for vaccines and developing world availability" and said there wouldn't be a reason to depart from that in the case of bird flu. Sanofi said it is "willing to contribute wherever feasible to any initiative that could help developing countries get access to a vaccine."

Write to Nicholas Zamiska at

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