Vaccine makers claim they are planning ahead for an outbreak of avian flu and could adapt to any human variant within months, according to a recent interview with Reuters. While bird-to-human transmission remains rare, various companies have said they have the ability to modify existing vaccines to combat any new mutations that could make it more common, and rich nations are already locking in orders.
Being prepared could be key to avoiding a pandemic like COVID-19, but experts are concerned that some wealthy nations are hoarding vaccine orders far too much.
Alarm bells have rung in recent months after an outbreak in Cambodia saw two human cases of H5N1 avian influenza, and many other nations quarantining farm birds to avoid rapid spread. There is currently no evidence that the disease has adapted for human-to-human transmission, but should it occur, it could spread rapidly. Historically, rare human cases of H5N1 bird flu have around a 50 percent mortality rate, which would be significantly higher than for other highly infectious diseases of concern.
The vaccine would utilize the existing production lines for influenza shots, which produce millions each year. Alongside the approximately 20 different vaccines approved for use against H5 avian flu, any new vaccine could be tailored to fit the variant of concern should a new pandemic occur.
Despite high numbers of orders from rich nations, the vaccine would still be delivered to poorer countries, albeit in reduced quantities. International guidelines state that 10 percent of pandemic flu vaccines be delivered to developing nations, but the World Health Organization (WHO) is now looking to increase this to 20 percent.
COVID-19 demonstrated that having populations of lower inoculation rates can create “breeding grounds” for rapid virulent mutations, so ensuring the vaccine doses are spread evenly across the world is not just important for populations less fortunate than those in wealthy countries, but also for those wealthy countries themselves.