There was a sense of relief yesterday at a New York Academy of Sciences conference on H1N1. Nearly a year before, many of the same people had gathered to discuss the emerging swine flu pandemic; this year, they’re catching their breath. The speakers, however, didn’t mince their words when it came to the need to bolster pandemic preparedness.
“Nature has a way of slapping you in the face once in a while, and it did this time” said Michael Shaw, an associate director of laboratory science with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Before 2009, much of US preparation for a pandemic operated under the assumption that the flu threat (avian) lay in Southeast Asia. But at yesterday’s meeting Shaw emphasized the need for better surveillance of threats worldwide. This includes monitoring a more diverse set of animal strains, as well as assisting developing countries, which might have other pressing priorities that trump flu prevention.
James Matthews, vice president for health and science policy at Sanofi-Pasteur, added that as recently as last month, 26 out of 94 poor countries had not yet received any H1N1 vaccine. One way to improve access to vaccines for H1N1 and other possible future pandemics would be to establish better distribution systems for regular seasonal vaccine within developing countries, according to Matthews.
Conference speakers also had recommendations for the US home front. James Gill, a forensic pathologist who performed several autopsies of H1N1 victims, said that improvements need to be made in getting quality tissue samples to labs as soon as possible. Multiple speakers similarly noted the need for increased lab capacity and access to reagents. Lab workers will also need to improve their adaptability to new strains.
When it comes to vaccine development, Matthews said that it would be important in the coming years to validate alternative methods for testing vaccine potency. Decreasing a vaccine’s time to clinical trials, possibly through in vitro analysis, would also speed up the time to production.
If there’s one thing the group agreed on, it’s that H1N1 as we know it isn’t over. But what about the next pandemic? How should we act differently? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Image by USACE Europe District via Flickr Creative Commons