By Tom Miles
The World Health Organization is creating a "blueprint" to improve the medical response to major outbreaks of diseases, after it was accused of reacting too slowly to West Africa's Ebola epidemic, it said on Friday.
"The goal is to reduce the time from recognition of an outbreak to the availability of new medical tools to four months or less," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told a news conference in Geneva.
"Doing so, I believe, will leave the world better prepared for the next inevitable medical emergency. No one wants to see clinicians, doctors, left empty handed again."
The plan is likely to cover influenza strains such as H5N1 and could help prepare for a worsening spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), among other diseases, WHO officials said.
The proposal is part of a swathe of reforms designed to avoid a repetition of the U.N. health agency's slow response to the Ebola epidemic, which has killed 11,294 people and has yet to be fully snuffed out in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
The WHO is hoping to learn from the development of an Ebola vaccine, which has proceeded at lightning speed compared to normal drug development but only really took off once the Ebola outbreak was already at crisis point.
One potential Ebola vaccine has been shown to be 100 percent effective, trial data showed on Friday.
When the next epidemic comes, the WHO wants the tools to tackle it much more quickly. It plans to analyse diagnostics, vaccines, drugs and other medical equipment, and wants to take research far enough so that the products could reach the final phase of efficacy testing within four months of an outbreak.
"Based on our experience of Ebola and our earlier experience of pandemic influenza, in some diseases it's very difficult to develop innovations, especially from scratch, in four months," Chan said.
WHO Assistant-Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny said: "What we have started to work on ... is to see what should be done for other diseases of epidemic potential, prior to any epidemic starting."
The plan will set up "step-by-step procedures, protocols, collaborative agreements, codes of conduct, and ideal product profiles that can be put in place in advance," Chan said.
The blueprint is expected to be presented to the WHO's annual conference of health ministers, the World Health Assembly, in 2016, Kieny said.