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Pharma increases vaccine production as bird flu hits Europe

Published on 14/10/05 at 12:58pm

Pharmaceutical companies are being urged to step up vaccine production as the strain of bird flu that killed 59 people in Asia arrived in Turkey.

The first arrival of the H5N1 strain of avian flu on the fringes of Europe in Turkey was compounded by investigations in Romania into a similar strain.

Meeting with the leaders of GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Chiron, MedImmune, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur, US president George W. Bush urged them to boost their flu vaccine production, as countries try to work out a global approach to any pandemic.

GlaxoSmithKline, which has increased production of its flu treatment Relenza, will triple its US manufacturing capacity over the next two years and is developing an experimental avian flu vaccine.

Chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier said he was encouraged by early results from the experimental vaccine.

"It is not only effective against avian flu, but also derivatives of avian flu. You need to have a shotgun vaccine rather than a laser vaccine, just in case there is a drift [in the type of the virus]," he said.

Supplies of Roche's rival treatment Tamiflu have been running low recently as countries stockpile the drug, despite the company doubling production capacity for the second year running.

No specific avian flu vaccine has yet been developed and the World Health Organisation warned that currently available flu vaccines will not protect against the H5N1 strain.

Oxford-based Powdermed has a vaccine for the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the final stages of preclinical development and the candidate is expected to enter clinical trials by the middle of 2006.

The company says a big advantage of its vaccine is that it can be produced much quicker than current flu vaccines - within three months enough vaccine can be made to meet an entire country's (150 million people) requirements - and it can be adapted to new strains of the disease.

Another company, Cambridge biotech Acambis, began development over the summer on a flu vaccine that could offer permanent protection against influenza and guard against potential flu pandemics.

The company says its vaccine candidate would only need to be given once for permanent protection against both the A and B strains of influenza.

Avian flu is caused by subtypes of the influenza A virus that normally infects birds and, less commonly, pigs. All birds are thought to be susceptible to infection, though some species are more resistant than others.

Humans can become infected by direct contact with discharges from infected birds or through things like contaminated feed or water.

The WHO said: "The spread of H5N1 to poultry in new areas is of concern as it increases opportunities for further human cases to occur. However, all evidence to date indicates that the H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to infect humans."

Although there have only been isolated incidents of transmission of the H5N1 virus between humans, according to the WHO an avian flu pandemic could kill up to seven million worldwide.

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