WHO Emergency Committee Concludes ‘Too Premature’ To Declare H1N1 Has Peaked

The WHO’s emergency committee concluded Tuesday that it was too early to declare that H1N1 (swine flu) has peaked in all parts of the world, the Associated Press reports. The announcement came after the committee met to review the most recent statistics of H1N1 activity around the world (2/24).

“The 15 members of the body that makes confidential recommendations to WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan deliberated for two hours but decided there were too many uncertainties about how the pandemic was behaving, even if it appeared to be subsiding in North America and Europe,” Reuters reports. “Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s top influenza expert, told reporters on Wednesday that rising levels of infection in West Africa and the risk posed by the winter months in the southern hemisphere were the dominating concerns of the committee” (Lynn, 2/24).

“The panel had been widely expected to say that the outbreak of pandemic H1N1 influenza had passed its peak and was now tailing off,” the Los Angeles Times’ “Booster Shots” blog writes. The committee said it would need more time and information about H1N1 activity in order to accurately assess the pandemic, and “recommended that another meeting be held in a month or two to reassess the situation” (Maugh, 2/23).

“The H1N1 virus, which emerged in North America last March, spread with unprecedented speed and infected millions of people,” Reuters writes in a second story that examines the definition of the final stage of a pandemic, known as the “post-pandemic period.” The news service reports that H1N1 “is confirmed as having killed 16,000 people [worldwide], but it will take a year or two after the pandemic ends to establish the true death toll, the WHO says” (Nebehay, 2/23).

Ahead of the announcement, Reuters reported on the decision facing WHO: “No matter what happens, some public health officials fear that the moderate nature of the H1N1 pandemic, which emerged in April and is dying down in the Americas and Europe, may make people complacent about the next one.” The news service continues, “And the risk remains that H1N1 could come roaring back – something viruses have done in past pandemics.” The article includes comments by CDC flu expert Nancy Cox, who is a member of the WHO’s emergency committee, and Peter Sandman, a risk communications expert, who addresses the complicated task of communicating the risk of influenza (Fox, 2/23).

In related news, the Wall Street Journal reports on how scientists are experimenting with tobacco plants as a way to produce vaccine faster. “Flu vaccines are typically grown in chicken eggs. Although the technique is slow and expensive, vaccine makers have done little to improve on this reliable method for more than 60 years,” the newspaper writes. “The urgent need for a better way became apparent last year,” when the H1N1 pandemic emerged.

The article details the work of a consortium testing plant-based vaccines for H1N1, which was recently awarded $40 million to make 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccine by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Texas A&M, together with G-Con, are expected to invest $21 million. “Details of the project, known as GreenVax, will be announced Wednesday,” the newspaper writes. The article examines the advantages to developing vaccines in plants over animals parts and describes how researchers were able to produce the protein from H1N1 – “the essence of the vaccine” – in tobacco plants.

“GreenVax hopes to produce the initial 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccine within 12 months,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “Large-scale human clinical trials are expected to begin in 2011, and could take up to 18 months to complete. The setup could be used to produce other vaccines as well” (Naik, 2/24).

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