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WHO raises pandemic alert level to 5

WHO has raised the pandemic swine flu alert level to phase 5 out of 6, warning that a global health emergency is imminent

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised the pandemic swine flu alert level to phase 5 out of 6, warning that a global health emergency is imminent.

"The change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments [and industry] that certain actions now should be undertaken with increased urgency and at an accelerated pace," said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO's director general at a press conference yesterday.

"The biggest question is this – how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start?" Chan added. "Influenza viruses are notorious for their rapid mutations and unpredictable behaviour. We do not have all the answers immediately but we will get them."

The move by the agency, which is the public health arm of the United Nations (UN), was taken after the new strain of Mexican swine flu was transmitted between humans in Mexico and the US. It has spread to at least nine countries, four of them in Europe.

Practically speaking, the shift is crucial to mobilise pharmaceutical companies and governments to start manufacturing adequate antiviral drugs and to expedite the creation of a vaccine against swine flu.

The UK government pledged to increase stockpiles of medicines, including antiviral treatments and announced a public health campaign, following all-day emergency meetings yesterday.

Meanwhile, Roche has announced that it is working closely with WHO to ensure Tamiflu is made available to people infected with the influenza. The Swiss drugmaker has the capacity to manufacture 400 million courses of Tamiflu annually, though CEO Severin Schwan has indicated that boosting production to this level "takes some time". Thus far, Roche has filled orders for 220 million courses of Tamiflu and donated five million packs of the drug to WHO.

Similarly, sanofi-aventis and its vaccines division Sanofi Pasteur has announced its 'readiness to support public health efforts' aimed at preventing the spread of the influenza A H1N1 virus. The French company will continue to manufacture seasonal influenza vaccines, in compliance with a recent WHO recommendation, but is also ready to develop a vaccine against the new influenza strain.

30th April 2009

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