GENEVA (AP) - The World Health Organization is gearing up to
declare a swine flu pandemic, a move that could trigger both the
large-scale production of vaccines and questions about why the step
was delayed for weeks as the virus continued to spread.
On Wednesday, WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan quizzed eight
countries with large swine flu outbreaks to see if a pandemic, or
global epidemic, should be declared. After Chan's teleconference,
the agency announced that an emergency meeting with its flu experts
would be held Thursday.
Since swine flu first emerged in Mexico and the United States in
April, it has spread to 74 countries around the globe. On
Wednesday, WHO reported 28,737 cases including 141 deaths. Most
cases are mild and require no treatment.
The world is in phase 5 of WHO's pandemic alert scale, meaning a
global outbreak is imminent. Moving to phase 6, the highest level,
means a pandemic has begun. If that declaration is made, it will
push drugmakers to fast-track production of a swine flu vaccine.
Chan says she personally believes that a pandemic is under way,
but was seeking clear proof that swine flu is spreading rapidly
from person to person outside the Americas before declaring a
"Once I get indisputable evidence I will make the
announcement" she told reporters Tuesday.
It would be the first flu pandemic in 41 years, since the Hong
Kong flu of 1968.
At GlaxoSmithKline PLC, spokesman Stephen Rea said the company
was already working with a key ingredient of the swine flu vaccine
to see how quickly doses could be produced. Other major
pharmaceuticals like Sanofi Pasteur have also been working on a
swine flu vaccine since WHO gave them a "seed stock" of the virus
last month created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Rea said it could take up to six months before large amounts of
a swine flu vaccine are available. At the moment, GlaxoSmithKline
is still making regular flu vaccine, which it expects to be
completed by July.
After that, Rea said GlaxoSMithKline could speed up its swine
flu vaccine production if a pandemic is declared. Once that
announcement is made, the company would be obliged to fulfill
contracts it signed with countries including Britain, Belgium and
France, promising to provide a pandemic vaccine as soon as
If a global outbreak is announced, countries would likely
activate their own pandemic preparedness plans if they haven't
already. That could mean devoting more money to health services or
imposing measures like quarantines, school closures, travel bans
and trade restrictions - some of which WHO opposes.
According to WHO's own pandemic criteria, a global outbreak
means a new flu virus is spreading in at least two world regions.
With thousands of cases in North America and hundreds in Japan,
Australia and Europe, many experts say that threshold has already
been reached, but the U.N. agency has held off on making the
pandemic call for political reasons.
"If you look at the science, we were at phase 6 weeks ago,"
said Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota
who has advised the U.S. government on pandemic preparations.
"What's happening right now is not about public health
surveillance and science," he told The Associated Press in an
interview Wednesday. "It's about politics and risk
Osterholm said WHO's delayed decision has cost the agency
"As soon as you try to incorporate risk messaging into science,
you are on a slippery slope," he said. "WHO has exacerbated the
issue by dancing around it."
In May, several countries urged WHO not to declare a pandemic,
fearing it would spark mass panic. The agency appeared to cave into
the requests, saying it would rewrite its definition of a global
outbreak so that it wouldn't have to declare one right away for
But WHO officials have been concerned in recent days after
seeing media reports and health experts discussing more swine flu
cases than were being reported by the countries themselves.
In one of the most glaring examples, Britain rushed to report
another 75 infections Wednesday, for a total of 750 cases, after
some outside health officials said the country wasn't not looking
very hard for swine flu.
Britain's Health Protection Agency insists the virus is not
spreading in communities. But three Greek students recently
returned home after catching swine flu in the U.K., proof the virus
is spreading more widely than British authorities admit. Two of the
cases were documented in the journal of the European Centre for
Disease Prevention and Control.
WHO said announcing a pandemic would not mean the situation was
worsening, since no mutations have been detected in the virus to
show it is getting more deadly.
One flu expert said WHO's pandemic declaration would mean little
in terms of how countries are responding to the outbreak.
"The writing has been on the wall for weeks," said Chris
Smith, a flu virologist at Cambridge University, adding he didn't
know why WHO had waited so long to declare a pandemic. "WHO
probably doesn't want people to panic, but the virus is now
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