H7N9 Influenza and the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Plan

Photo courtesy of hyena reality and freedigitalphotos.net
Photo courtesy of hyena reality and freedigitalphotos.net

Like many of you, I’ve been carefully following the news about H7N9. A few of my favorite blogs or sites for this are Avian Flu Diary, Virology down under, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and the Bird Flu Report. A couple of thoughts about what we know so far. First, it is always difficult to make a vaccine for an H7 virus. For this reason, it’s unlikely that sufficient vaccine could be ready in six months, even in the United States. It is true that some newer vaccine technologies are now proving their potential. But we aren’t in a fundamentally different position than in 2009, when most vaccine became available too late for swine flu.

At the same time, I think that it’s important to keep the information to date in perspective. So far, the virus seems to be transmitting between people very poorly. The Chinese government has had an active response, shutting down wet markets, tracking the disease, and sharing information. Yes, early in the epidemic there were concerns that the Chinese government had concealed information, especially after thousands of pigs were found floating in Shanghai’s river system. But, at this point, an immense amount of scientific work is being done quickly. This outbreak may disappear, much like SARS, or sputter along like H5N1. It’s important to remember that British Columbia’s Fraser Valley has had three significant outbreaks of avian influenza, but you hear almost nothing about that. We don’t know where the next outbreak of pandemic influenza will come from. Because we can’t predict where influenza outbreaks will begin, the work of the WHO on a global level is so critical.

The WHO recently created a new Pandemic Influenza Plan, which was shaped by concerns about global health equity, as developing countries fought for more access to vaccines and medications in the event of a pandemic. Indonesia was at the forefront in opposing what it viewed as a neo-colonial system of global health governance, and successfully fought for major changes to WHO policy. I recently published an article on this topic (Biopiracy and Vaccines: Indonesia and the World Health Organization’s new Pandemic Influenza Plan), which you can read in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of International and Global Studies. While these questions of global governance do not get much press attention, the hard work that goes into these agreements will prove critical during an actual pandemic. I think that the new WHO plan is a significant step forward, although key problems remain. At the moment, the data looks hopeful, as new cases in China seem to be declining. Fingers crossed, we have more time to both develop a universal influenza vaccine, and better global governance agreements in the event of a pandemic.

I have a new article out, which examines conspiracy theories and the 2009 influenza pandemic, which is publicly available.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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