GENEVA: A Swiss pharmaceutical giant said Friday it has a swine flu vaccine ready for trial as governments stepped up precautions to counter the newly-declared influenza pandemic.
While millions could catch the flu, governments and health experts around the world have sought to play down fears that the A(H1N1) virus could become a major killer.
Swine flu has so far infected almost 30,000 people in 74 countries and claimed 145 lives since it was first detected in Mexico in April, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures.
The Swiss company Novartis stole a march on competitors by announcing it has completed a first batch of its vaccine for pre-clinical trials. A spokesman told AFP it hoped to have a vaccine in production by September or October.
"Novartis has successfully completed the production of the first batch of influenza A(H1N1) vaccine, weeks ahead of expectations," the company said in a statement.
Novartis said it hopes to start trials on patients in July and to gain a licence soon after. It said more than 30 governments had already asked for A(H1N1) virus "vaccine ingredients."
The US government gave Novartis 289 million dollars (205 million euros) to help develop a vaccine. It also placed an order with Sanofi-Pasteur of France which said it hopes to have doses ready for clinical trials in coming weeks.
British-controlled GlaxoSmithKline said Friday that it could produce a vaccine in four to six months and that it was ready to convert a donation of 50 million doses of vaccine against H5N1 bird flu for the WHO to swine flu doses.
The UN health agency raised its global alert to a maximum six on Thursday saying it had reached pandemic status because of its geographical spread.
WHO Director General Margaret Chan said the declaration of a "moderate" pandemic should not spark panic and did not mean the A(H1N1) death toll would rise sharply.
She said raising the alert "means that the world is moving into the early days of its first influenza pandemic in the 21st century."
The WHO said it would ask drug-makers to quickly prepare to produce swine flu vaccines once the production of seasonal flu vaccine ends.
The southern hemisphere is currently heading into winter and the height of its flu season. Northern hemisphere countries expect to see a swine flu surge when their winter starts later.
Mexico has been worst hit. Its government on Thursday increased the country's death toll to 109 with 6,294 A(H1N1) infections. The United States comes next. Its health authorities have reported 27 deaths and 13,217 cases.
Australia, the worst hit in the Asia-Pacific region, was mulling raising its national flu alert and adopting powers to cancel sports events, restrict travel and even shut national borders. There are currently 1,307 confirmed cases including four in intensive care.
In Hong Kong, which was hit hard by the 2003 SARS outbreak, authorities closed all primary schools after a group of children became the Chinese city's first "cluster" of cases.
Israel's health ministry raised its alert to the highest level following the WHO decision, ordering the stocking of vaccines to inoculate up to 25 percent of the country's 7.2 million population.
Britain is Europe's worst hit country with 909 recorded cases, but the total has risen significantly in recent days.
In Spain, where there are 488 confirmed cases, Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez called for calm after WHO raised its alert, saying that the symptoms were "slight" and the flu could be easily treated.
France, where there are 80 cases, and Germany (95) said they are not changing their alert levels.
The risk of the spread of an influenza pandemic is greatest in Britain, closely followed by the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and South Korea, according to a ranking of 213 countries released Friday.
But even if most rich countries are vulnerable, despite the rapid transmission of the disease, they are far better equipped to cope with its impact, said Alyson Warhurst, a professor at Warwick Business School in Britain and main architect of the global ranking.