European governments weigh up flu vaccine sharing

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A special meeting of European health ministers next month will discuss “solidarity measures” which could see flu vaccines shared between countries. However, there is likely to be resistance from member states that have ordered large quantities of the vaccine for their citizens.

German MEP Jo Leinen, who chairs the European Parliament committee responsible for public health, acknowledged cooperation “might be a problem” as health is the responsibility of national governments. 

Speaking today (3 September) at a press briefing in Brussels, he said governments have already ordered varying quantities of vaccines from drug manufacturers and “this might create problems in the autumn when the virus really hits home”. 

He said devising a system which will allow the transfer of vaccines between countries will be a priority for health ministers when they meet to discuss the pandemic next month. 

“We’d like to see a solidarity mechanism put in place between the 27 member states because it may well be that the vaccine isn’t available in equal amounts across the EU. Sweden, which holds the rotating six-month EU Presidency, is anxious to foster close cooperation between member states amid concerns that a major flu outbreak could hamper Europe’s prospects of economic recovery. 

Vaccine to be available in early October 

Leinen also expressed concern that the most vulnerable groups in society will face delays in accessing vaccines. 

“The H1N1 vaccine won’t be ready until the beginning of October for those who are healthy, and then only in December for vulnerable groups. We’ve often heard it said that vulnerable groups should be vaccinated first but in fact the vaccine for those citizens will be ready last,” he said. 

Meanwhile, in Beijing, China’s health authorities approved the mass production of a H1N1 vaccine by Sinovac Biotech. The company, whose stock has risen 77% in the last two weeks, described the pandemic as “an opportunity”. 

It issued a statement forecasting an annual sales increase of greater than 20%. Sinovac’s Panflu vaccine has been tested on 1,600 volunteers, 10% of whom have had an adverse reaction. 

Sinovac CEO Yin Weidong is quoted by Reuters as saying most of the side effects were “minor”. So far, there have not been any serious or abnormal reactions reported,” Yin said. 

Speaking on Tuesday (September 1) to the European Parliament committee responsible for public health, Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told the committee yesterday, that cases of infection with the new virus have been reported in all member states. By the end of August the number has exceeded 46,000 infected people and 104 deaths. 

“The pandemic is moderate, but not harmless and in the winter we can expect it to become one of the dominant diseases affecting European citizens,” said Jakab. 

German conservative MEP Peter Liese called for "realistic estimates and a targeted approach" with more detailed information for parents about the symptoms and guidance on vaccination. Isolating children to prevent spreading the influenza could be problematic, especially if the use of vaccine for them as a risk group will not be approved before spring, he added. 

Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, a German social democrat, warned against spreading panic, and suggested that simple preventive measures such as washing hands and antiseptic products should be vigorously promoted and implemented. She also asked the ECDC for recommendations to member states on how to tackle seasonal and “new” influenza when they occur at simultaneously. 

French Green MEP, Michèle Rivasi, called for a risk-benefit assessment of vaccinating since mortality is not high and the disease seems to be moderate. She suggested the vaccine's side effects could prove to be even more dangerous than influenza itself. “Do we know that there won't be any side effects? Who will be responsible if they occur? Pharmaceutical companies don't want to be,” she said. 

In June, the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its flu pandemic alert level to phase six, marking the first full-scale global pandemic in 41 years. European governments triggered national response plans and have been preparing for an anticipated surge of cases as winter approaches. 

The European Health Agency Directorate is predicting that 30% of Europeans will be infected with the H1N1 virus. 

Most people infected with the virus, which has sometimes been referred to as swine flu or Mexican flu, make a full recovery but deaths have been recorded on all continents. 

Sweden is pushing for common procurement of vaccines and a European Council working group has been established to help devise a cohesive approach to communication campaigns and managing the spread of the flu. 

EU health ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the strategy at a meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) on 12 October. By that time, it is expected that a vaccine will be available for use. 

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