A feasibility study into manufacturing a bird flu vaccine for South Africa is being conducted in Cape Town, the Biovac Institute - a public private partner of the health department - said on Tuesday.
"The study is in response to the H5N1 bird flu pandemic threat. It aims to assess the potential impact of an influenza pandemic on Southern Africa and the most effective way in which flu vaccine manufacturing can be undertaken in the country," the institute's medical affairs director, Dr Morena Makhoana, said in a statement.
Impact would be devastating
"The study is important because a flu pandemic based on the H5N1 bird flu virus would have a devastating impact on the African continent, where the vast majority of the population have very little access to specialised health care," he added.
The study was being conducted by the Biovac Institute and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The Dutch government provided R1,47 million in funding.
"The study will be undertaken by Cape Town-based technology consultancy Savant Analytic and is expected to take between six months a year to complete," said Makhoana.
He said H5N1 flu in humans had resulted in significant rates of mortality in those infected, most of them healthy children and young adults.
"Current global flu vaccine manufacturing capacity is in the region of 300 million doses, with a maximum potential to triple this to 900 million doses in the short term.
Reserved for developed nations
"It is apparent that these doses will be reserved for the developed nations that manufacture them," Makhoana said.
He said alternatives to vaccinations included anti-viral drugs such as Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza), which were complex and difficult to make.
Even with increased production capacity, it will still take 10 years to produce enough Tamiflu to treat 200 million people, he said.
"Once again, there is little chance that developing economies will see any of this production. Therefore the need for the study in SA," said Makhoana.
Outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu have devastated poultry flocks across Asia since 2003 and jumped to humans, killing at least 67. – (Sapa)
Read more: Avian influenza (Bird flu)