Swine Flu Vaccine Developed Earlier Than Expected

Novartis AG, a European drug maker, has recently announced that it has successfully produced the first batch of H1N1 swine flu vaccine. Fortunately, quite a few week earlier than they had originally anticipated.

The company explained that the production schedule was shortened because the vaccine was created in cells, rather than the egg based method that is usually used for vaccines.

This announcement comes just after the World Health Organization declared the first flu pandemic since 1968. This declaration became necessary after the H1N1 virus rapidly spread across North America, Australia, South America, and Europe.

Apparently Novartis is preparing to use their first batch for evaluation and testing, before allowing it to be used in people as well as in clinical trials. Novartis is expecting to be able to produce millions of doses of their vaccine on a weekly basis.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has jumped at the chance to help its residents by already placing an order worth $289 million for the swine flu vaccine with Novartis back in May.

Dr. Margaret Chan from the World Health Organization, stated during her announcement on the pandemic status of the swine flu virus:

“The world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century. The virus is now unstoppable.”

As the number of swine flu cases increased to 30,000 in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia, the World Health Organization (WHO) increased the outbreak’s alert status to level 6, the highest level possible. In order to declare such status, according to the WHO, at least two different regions of the world need to have been hit by the virus. So far there have been 28,774 cases of swine flu, including 144 deaths, reported across 74 countries.

It appears that health officials with America’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) were expecting this pandemic announcement. The Director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said, “It’s based on the data.”

However, he did add that, “this does not mean there is any difference in the severity of the flu. There has been no change in the virus.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, has explained that:

“Here in the United States, we have been responding as if it were a pandemic already.”

Dr. Schuchat goes on to explain that the pandemic announcement means that “for countries that were not seeing the flu we have seen here, they need to dust off their pandemic plans.”

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, stated:

“What this declaration does do is remind the world that flu viruses like H1N1 need to be taken seriously. Although we have not seen large numbers of severe cases in this country so far, things could possibly be very different in the fall, especially if things change in the Southern Hemisphere, and we need to start preparing now in order to be ready for a possible H1N1 immunization campaign, starting in late September.”

The last flu pandemic was the Hong Kong flu of 1968, which killed 1 million people. The common flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people every year.

However, even though the WHO has announced pandemic status of the swine flu, it does not mean that the flu itself has gotten any worse.

A former New York City Health Commissioner and Dean of Public Health at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center, Dr. Pascal James Imperato, said in a statement:

“A World Health Organization level 6, which in effect states that H1N1 infections are now worldwide in distribution, is simply a declaration of the extent of geographic spread, and not a statement of severity of the clinical disease. The disease remains relatively mild in most people. A positive consequence of this declaration is that it empowers countries to move forward with vaccine production.”

Health officials in America have stated that the flu infections have been moderately mild and that most people recover quickly, and that preliminary testing has shown that the H1N1 virus is receptive to Tamiflu and Relenza, which are both common antiviral drugs.

However, scientists and other health officials will be keeping a vigilant eye on the swine flu to see if it mutates or becomes resistant to the antiviral medications or if it becomes more easily spreadable amongst people.

At this point in time, American health officials have explained that there is no way to tell now if the H1N1 virus will become more deadly when, and if, it does return to American shores with the coming of winter.

Photo Credit: AndyB in Brazil!

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