GENEVA, Oct 7 (AP): UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the United Nations will not let intellectual property rights (IPRs) stand in the way of access to flu treatments and vaccines in case of a pandemic.
"We should be clear in this situation: We will take the measures to make sure poor and rich have access to the medications and the vaccines required," Annan said Thursday, calling on rich nations and pharmaceutical companies to help impoverished countries prepare themselves.
Annan said he will be "encouraging pharmaceutical companies and others to be helpful and making sure we do not allow intellectual property rights to get in the way of access of the poor to medication." Patents allow the developer of a drug an exclusive right to make and sell the drug for several years. But under some circumstances, countries are allowed to create generic versions of patented drugs - if the medicine is considered essential.
Annan met the global body's top health officials to discuss the bird flu virus, which has affected parts of Asia.
"Some countries are not prepared," Annan told reporters at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters. "Some are obviously complacent. Others do not have the capacity and need help to be able to do it and we need to identify those countries and offer them help."
Annan's comments were a "very interesting political statement", according to humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush summoned vaccine manufacturers to a White House meeting Friday, hoping to personally boost the rickety industry amid increasing fears of a worldwide outbreak of bird flu. It's the latest in a flurry of preparations for a possible pandemic after criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
This month, vaccine maker Sanofi-Pasteur begins the first mass production of a new vaccine that promises to protect against bird flu, producing $100 million (euro82.9 million) worth of inoculations for a government stockpile.
But it would take months to create a new vaccine from scratch if a different strain of bird flu than today's known as H5N1 emerges. Even if the vaccine works, Sanofi is producing enough to protect anywhere from 2.0 million to 20 million people -- depending on how much must be put into each dose -- and it's not clear when or where similar large stockpiles could be made.
The nation has only three main manufacturers of vaccine against the regular flu that circulates each winter.
Bush called together the heads of major vaccine companies "to press ahead to expand our manufacturing capacity for a vaccine to address this risk," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday.
On the agenda for Friday's meeting is liability, McClellan said. If healthy people suffer side effects from a vaccine, manufacturers can face huge lawsuits, one reason many companies have left the business in the last two decades.
Another reason is that vaccines simply aren't very profitable, especially flu vaccine, which must be made fresh every winter to keep up with newly circulating strains. The irony: Although there have been three shortages since 2000 and supplies are strained again this year, in most years manufacturers throw away millions of unused flu shots.