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August 09, 2005

Vaccine coverage: the day afterAvian Flu - What we need to know

The euphoria caused over the weekend by the announcement that we may have a bird flu vaccine was replaced in today's newspapers by a much more cautios tone. The New York Times writes A Successful Vaccine Alone Is Not Enough to Prevent Avian Flu Epidemic:

Now in the wake of the announcement, officials and scientists said in interviews, the critical factor is timing: If a pandemic strikes before the vaccine becomes widely available, it still will put millions of people at risk. Further tests need to be conducted before the vaccine can be licensed and offered to the public.

Even if the avian influenza virus does not spread in the near future, countries and industry must find ways to produce enough vaccine in time to prevent the spread of the virus and to protect the people at greatest risk.

[...] Influenza viruses are grown in chicken eggs, and the vaccine industry has difficulty obtaining enough of them to produce the standard influenza shots each year. That is among the reasons that the industry can currently produce only an estimated 450 million doses of standard influenza vaccine for the human strains, Dr. Fauci said.

Efforts are being made to encourage companies to keep their production facilities open throughout the year so they can produce more influenza vaccine. But while the added amount the companies can produce would be welcome, there is no way industry can now meet the needs for a pandemic of human avian influenza, experts said.

The Washington Post has its own follow up story, where you can read about the steps the vaccine will need to go through before it can be mass produced:

Production of next winter's seasonal flu vaccine will end later this month, meaning it will be mid-September at the earliest before mass production of the bird flu vaccine can get under way, he said.

"It's less a regulatory issue than a production capacity issue," Fauci said.

The next step in the testing process is to try out the vaccine on a group of volunteers over age 65, followed by tests on children. Fauci said trials on the over-65 volunteers will begin within a month, and will take four to six months to complete. Tests on children will follow immediately.

See H5N1 for a discussion on the number of vaccines likely available in the next six months.

The problem of production capacity is huge, but by no means singular. For bird flu to turn into a human pandemic it has to mutate. We still don't know how effective the vaccine will be if the mutation takes place. Read more on Recombinomics.

Posted by dymaxion at August 9, 2005 02:14 PM

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