Flu spreads, WHO fears mutation

H1N1 now in 160 countries with a toll of 800, virus could be more severe by winter


“For the moment we haven’t seen any changes in the behaviour of the virus. What we are seeing still is a geographic expansion across countries,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told a news briefing in Geneva.

The new virus, commonly known as swine flu, has been infecting people worldwide because no one has natural immunity to it. Like all influenza viruses, it may circulate more widely in colder weather and could also mutate in winter, he said.

“We do have to be aware that there could be changes and we have to be prepared for those,” Hartl said.

He said the first vaccine doses for the disease should be ready in several months. “We expect the first doses to be available for human use in early autumn of the northern hemisphere,” he said.

But it was not yet clear whether people would require a single or double injection for immunity, as clinical trials have just begun, he added.

The WHO so far has promises of 150 million doses from two manufacturers for developing countries and is negotiating with other producers for further doses which will be earmarked for the least developed countries, he said.

Hartl did not name the companies, but leading flu vaccine makers include Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, Baxter, GlaxoSmithKline and Solvay.

The WHO, a United Nations agency, declared an H1N1 influenza pandemic on June 11. It said last week it was the fastest-moving pandemic ever and now pointless to count every case.

‘In early stages’

The flu pandemic is still in its early stages and reports of over 1,00,000 infections in England alone last week are plausible, WHO’s flu chief said on Friday.

Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment, told The Associated Press that given the size of the world’s population, the new H1N1 virus is likely to spread for some time.

“Even if we have hundreds of thousands of cases or a few millions of cases... we’re relatively early in the pandemic,” he said in an interview in Geneva.

The global health agency stopped asking governments to report new cases last week, saying the effort was too great now that the disease has become so widespread in some countries.

Health authorities in Britain say there were over 1,00,000 infections in England alone last week, while US authorities estimate the United States has over 1 million swine flu cases.

Those figures dwarf WHO’s tally of 130,000 confirmed cases worldwide since the start of the outbreak last spring.

“We know that the total number of laboratory confirmed cases is really only a subset of the total number of cases,” Fukuda said.

Fukuda, the former chief of epidemiology at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, also said there must be no doubt over the safety of swine flu vaccines before they are given to the public.

Health officials and drug makers are looking into ways of speeding up the production of the vaccine before the northern hemisphere enters its flu season in the fall.

“Everybody involved with the vaccine work, from manufacturers up to the regulatory agencies, are looking at what steps can be taken to make the process as streamlined as possible,” Fukuda said.

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