The UK Government has awarded contracts to GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter which will see the two firms supply vaccines to help deal with a potential influenza pandemic.

The country’s Department of Health says that these “advanced supply contracts” are worth £155.4 million over four years, and mean that GSK and Baxter are committed to supply an influenza vaccine as soon as the pandemic strain is identified and made available by the World Health Organisation. Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said claimed that the contracts mean that the UK “is on the front foot if a flu pandemic occurs and are the latest steps towards ensuring we are as fully prepared as possible”.

She added that “we take the potential threat posed by pandemic flu very seriously and as the WHO has recognised, the UK is among the best prepared countries in the world”. A vaccine against the exact strain will need to be made at the time the new virus emerges and when the WHO recommends a switch from manufacture of seasonal to pandemic vaccines against the new pandemic strain. However the DoH noted that this will involve “a time lag of some months before vaccine” becomes available because the production process is complex.

The contract was put out to tender and the government says that the bids from Baxter and GSK “were judged to best meet all the required criteria including technical and scientific requirements as well as providing the best value for money”.

For its part, GSK said that the contract is one of the largest it has signed to date for its adjuvanted pandemic flu vaccine. Andrew Witty, president of GSK Pharmaceuticals Europe, noted that vaccines are considered to be “the single most important intervention for preventing influenza infection and reducing spread of the disease” and his firm believes that securing a decent supply “is an important step towards full pandemic preparedness and ultimately the protection of the British public”. The firm, which has similar deals in place with the Swiss, Danish and Icelandic governments, applied for European registration of its pandemic vaccine in January.

Baxter said that it has completed enrolment in a 550-subject Phase III trial of its H5N1 candidate vaccine for mock-up licensure in Europe, and the data is expected to be available in late 2007. The company has already delivered “several million doses of H5N1 pre-pandemic vaccine to various governments worldwide” and signed a deal with Austria last year to supply 16 million doses if required.