Drug Companies Set To Donate Vaccines To Poor Countries

Drug companies are set to donate vaccines and antivirals to poor countries, and share patented technology under a deal to strengthen defenses against the next flu pandemic, senior diplomats said on Friday.

Countries have been meeting this week at the World Health Organization (WHO) to improve their response to flu epidemics after poor states complained they were overlooked in the 2009 pandemic.

Tentative agreement was reached late on Thursday between all countries taking part in the talks, except for the United States which still has to give its final approval, the diplomats said. [nLDE73D2D0]

Countries would share virus samples with the WHO's network of laboratories in return for affordable vaccines derived from them under the agreement.

The industry has pledged to donate drugs and knowhow, covering half of the $58 million annual cost of boosting defenses in the poorest nations, according to senior envoys.

"We have a deal. It is a complete deal. It addresses all challenges. We are very, very optimistic," a senior diplomat told Reuters on Friday afternoon.

"The package is there. Everybody is ready to take it. But we are still waiting for the United States to say the final 'yes'," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. delegation was expected to report back to the closed-door talks after receiving instructions from Washington.

"The U.S. remains actively engaged in seeking a negotiated solution," David Kennedy, U.S. spokesman in Geneva, said, declining to comment further on any stumbling blocks.


The aim is to reach agreement by midnight on Friday on a draft deal to be presented for approval by health ministers at the WHO's annual meeting being held from May 16-24.

Negotiations began four years ago between WHO's 193 members after the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus emerged in southeast Asia. A year later, Indonesia stopped sharing flu virus samples with WHO laboratories, demanding its share of vaccines.

Indonesia's delegation has joined the near-consensus reached in the latest round of talks this week, diplomats said.

During the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009-2010, many developing countries complained that they had no life-saving antivirals or vaccines to combat the new virus.

The WHO helped distribute 78 million vaccines, donated by rich nations and drug makers, to 77 developing countries, but regulatory and other hurdles slowed the process.

The industry has now pledged to step up its role.

"The agreement is companies can choose what they want as part of their contribution. They will choose from a shortlist of very meaningful contributions," the senior diplomat said.

"They can transfer technology or know-how for manufacturing vaccines exclusively during pandemic times. This is key. They can donate important amounts of vaccine or antivirals," he said.

Drug company executives say current production capacity for pandemic flu vaccine is 1.1 billion doses. GlaxoSmithkline, Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis are among major flu vaccine makers.

Under the deal, 10 percent of production would be earmarked for developing countries, diplomats said. But the WHO would decide where the doses were best deployed to combat outbreaks.

"It gives flexibility to the WHO to think strategically on how resources should be spent," the senior diplomat said.

By Stephanie Nebehay

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.