Sanofi-Pasteur and GlaxoSmithKline have both been awarded contracts by the US Government to supply medicines used to combat an influenza pandemic.

Sanofi-Pasteur, the vaccines subsidiary of France’s Sanofi-Aventis, has been given a $100 million dollar grant to supply a vaccine based on the H5N1 strain of avian flu, considered to be one of the most likely candidates to vault the species barrier and cause a pandemic in man. Meanwhile, the federal government has ordered $2.8 million-worth of GSK’s Relenza (zanamivir), a drug that treats influenza infection.

The USA is hoping to lay in a stockpile of around 40 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, although just how many doses the Sanofi-Pasteur contract amounts to is as yet unknown, because the agreement covers bulk vaccine and the dosing needs to be established in clinical trials. The GSK order is for 84,300 treatment courses of Relenza, and adds to a previous request for a similar drug, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) from Swiss drugmaker Roche. Scientists have recommended these drugs be stockpiled to provide an immediate defense before an effective pandemic flu vaccine becomes available [[15/08/05c]].

Sanofi-Pasteur said it would make the bulk vaccine at its US headquarters in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, and would also receive payments for storing, filling and finishing the vaccine. The company has already won a $97 million contract with the US Government to develop a faster production process for influenza vaccine [[05/04/05f]].

Historically, flu pandemics have hit every few decades, killing millions around the world. The worst outbreak of the 20th century came in 1918-1919, where the strain known as Spanish flu caused 40-50 million deaths worldwide. Less serious outbreaks occurred in 1957-8 (Asian flu) and 1968-9 (Hong Kong flu), but since then there have been none, leading some to speculate that the next outbreak is just around the corner.

According to the World Health Organisation, the next pandemic - a global epidemic of an especially virulent virus with the potential for severe morbidity and mortality - is likely to result in 1 to 2.3 million hospitalisations and 280,000 to 650,000 deaths in industrialised nations, with an even more devastating impact likely in developing countries.