U.S. Moves to Prepare for Possible Bird Flu Threat

Steps include vaccines and antiviral drug

FRIDAY, Oct. 7, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- With concern mounting over the threat posed by bird flu, President George Bush met Friday with executives of major vaccine manufacturers to discuss an expansion of the country's ability to make enough vaccine to counter a possible pandemic.

Liability was one issue to be addressed, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. He noted that if a vaccine causes side effects in healthy people, vaccine manufacturers can face massive lawsuits, the Associated Press reported.

That's one reason why many drug companies have stopped making vaccines over the past two decades. A second reason is that vaccines aren't all that profitable. That's especially true for flu vaccines, which have to be reformulated every year to cope with new circulating flu strains.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.) on Thursday introduced legislation that would encourage vaccine production in the United States by financially guaranteeing a market for vaccine producers.

Also Friday, representatives of nearly 70 countries expressed their willingness to cooperate to limit the threat of a bird flu pandemic, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said.

Leavitt briefed reporters on the State Department conference, which was closed to the press, before he traveled to Southeast Asia, where he will gauge for himself various countries' capacity to monitor the virus and prevent its spread, the AP reported.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration and Congress are considering spending billions of dollars to buy a stockpile of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which has shown some success in treating bird flu, The New York Times reported.

However, because the federal government has spent months delaying a decision, the United States will have to wait in line behind other countries that already ordered Tamiflu. If the Bush administration had placed the order a few months ago, Tamiflu maker Roche could have delivered much of the United States' supply by next year, government and industry sources told the Times.

Complicating the federal government's efforts to avert a possible massive outbreak of bird flu is the fact that vaccine development takes time. And whether Tamiflu will be effective in humans remains unknown, experts said.

The potential threat posed by bird, or avian, flu has been compared to that of the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which killed 50 million people worldwide, including more than 500,000 in the United States.

In fact, U.S. researchers announced earlier this week that the bird flu strain that's emerging in the Far East shares some of the same genetic characteristics as the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic.

The current bird flu, called H5N1, is spreading throughout Asia and has reached Russia. So far infection has been mostly confined to millions of birds, but has caused the deaths of an estimated 65 people in Asia. Up till now, transmission of the disease from person to person has been limited, although most experts agree it's only a matter of time before that process becomes easier.

"We are very focused on the potential for a pandemic outbreak of influenza," Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week. "Most experts agree it's not a question of if, it's a question of when. The current H5 outbreak in Asia, we are taking it very seriously."

So, the U.S. government is supporting the development of vaccines and attempting to stockpile Tamiflu, which appears to be effective against the H5N1 strain in mice. Whether it will be effective in humans is unknown.

"We are concerned about avian flu," said Stephen S. Morse, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University and director of the school's Center for Public Health Preparedness. "But the next pandemic could come from some other [virus] as yet not on our radar screen -- an unanticipated influenza," he added.

Some trial batches of bird flu vaccine have been made by U.S. researchers, Morse said. "This was done to demonstrate the capability and make sure that all the pieces were in place in case we actually needed such a vaccine for human use."

However, Morse noted that should bird flu become easily transmittable from person to person, a vaccine for that specific strain would have to be developed. "Currently our vaccine capacity is limited. So [developing a vaccine] depends on a number of things, including political will and timing," he said.

Factors needed to produce a vaccine quickly include swift recognition by health experts of a new flu strain and increased manufacturing ability, Morse said. "It can be done if the political will is there," he said. "We are headed in the right direction. I hope we have time to put the pieces in place."

U.S. health officials also announced that the National Institutes of Health has entered into an agreement with MedImmune Inc., to develop a nasal mist vaccine for bird flu similar to its current nasal flu medication FluMist.

"We just entered a cooperative research-and-development agreement with the NIH to develop a pandemic flu vaccine," said Clarencia Stephen, a spokeswoman for MedImmune. "It's hard to put a time frame [on it], since we've just begun."

Usually it take several years to develop, test and gain FDA approval for a vaccine, Stephen said.

More information

The CDC can tell you more about avian flu.

SOURCES: Stephen S. Morse, Ph.D., director, Center for Public Health Preparedness, and associate professor of epidemiology, Columbia University, New York City; Julie L. Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Clarencia Stephen, spokeswoman, MedImmune, Inc., Gaithersburg, Md., Oct. 7, 2005, New York Times.
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