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  • Swine flu science update: 21 May 2009


The possibility that the swine flu virus — influenza A(H1N1) — could pass between humans through faeces could have important ramifications for developing countries, where millions live without proper sanitation, according to WHO director-general Margaret Chan.

In her address to the 62nd World Health Assembly held in Geneva this week (18 May) she said that diarrhoea and vomiting were a "striking feature" of current outbreaks and were now present in 25 per cent of cases.

"This is unusual. If virus-shedding is detected in faecal matter, this would introduce an additional route of transmission," she said.

Chan and UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon met 30 vaccine manufacturers — including GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis and Baxter — this week (19 May) to strike a deal to ensure that developing countries get access to A(H1N1) vaccine.

The Financial Times reported that discussions included how companies could share ingredients to boost vaccine production and how developing countries could be funded to pay enough for vaccines to make investment in production capacity worthwhile.

Chan announced after the meeting that six companies would make ten per cent of their A(H1N1) vaccines available to the UN. Companies have made commitments dependent on their individual circumstances, Reuters AlertNet reported.

The role of developing countries in providing virus samples from which vaccines are made — and the rights to any resulting benefits such as vaccines or patent rights — have also been discussed in Geneva.

Intellectual Property Watch reported that an Intergovernmental Meeting on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness had not resolved all issues.

Although the members produced a framework the United States had, according to the report, slowed progress by insisting on changes to wording in a legally-binding agreement, angering developing nations. Uncompleted elements will be decided at this week's (18–22 May) World Health Assembly.

A theory put forward by a plant virologist that A(H1N1) originated in a lab was rejected by the WHO in a press briefing last week (14 May). Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment, told press [56kB] that a "credible scientist" had contacted the WHO after analysing freely-available, web-based genetic sequences of A(H1N1) saying he thought it had been artificially developed.

Fukuda said a team of top international scientists concluded that "the evidence suggests that this is a naturally-occurring virus and not a laboratory-derived virus".

Fukuda said that providing "open source" information on A(H1N1) in this way allows, independent scientists to apply their minds to the problem.

"That was one of the more interesting uses of this kind of information in a real world example of what making information widely available can do. Hopefully, we will see this process applied over and over in additional investigations, in additional outbreaks as they come up," he said.

US-based University of Rochester researchers reported this week that they have successfully tested a computer simulation of the body's immune reaction to influenza type A. The model could be used to design treatment and prepare for future pandemics of different kinds of flu. The full paper was published in the Journal of Virology.

As of today (21 May) the WHO has reported 11,034 cases of A (H1N1) in 41 countries with 85 deaths.

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