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Jabs for everyone if avian flu pandemic strikes?
The UK Government has announced plans today designed to innoculate every person in the country in the event of an avian flu pandemic.
Health care companies will be asked to produce 120 million doses of a new vaccine should the deadly bird-flu virus mutate into humans. That's enough for two jabs for everyone in the UK - once the exact strain of a pandemic virus is known.
This morning the Department of Health handed out £33 million contracts to two companies to produce a vaccine for inoculating "essential users" against bird flu in humans.
Pharmaceutical firms Chiron and Baker have been commissioned to manufacture 3.5 million vaccine doses to protect humans against the H5N1 strain.
The Government has already commissioned 14.6 million batches of the Tamiflu antiviral drug which reduces the severity of bird flu symptoms, but the decision to obtain a new vaccine was announced as EU health ministers met in Vienna to discuss how to fight the spread of the virus.
Eight European countries have been affected so far, and yesterday a suspected outbreak of the deadly disease in France was found in a turkey farm.
Tests confirmed the virus is the H5 strain but French agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau said more tests were needed to determine if the case involved the H5N1 strain.
If confirmed, it would be the first time the disease had spread to poultry stocks in France - the EU's largest poultry producer.
Until now, all outbreaks have been in wild swans or ducks.
Scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into a form easily passed between humans and spark a human flu pandemic.
In view of that risk, the £33 million vaccine contracts have been awarded as part of British preparations for a possible flu pandemic and stocks have been scheduled for delivery in May and October.
The vaccine will be used to carry out further research and could also be used to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers before a specific pandemic vaccine can be developed.
Health Minister Rosie Winterton insisted this morning that the plans are only precautionary.
"We take the potential threat posed by pandemic flu very seriously and as the World Health Organisation and a recent Lords Science and Technology Committee has recognised, the UK is among the best-prepared countries in the world.
"But we are not complacent and recognise that more work needs to be done in order to make the country as fully prepared as possible to meet the threat.
"Today we have announced our intention to award the contract for the supply of around 3.5 million doses of H5N1 vaccine.
"Building a stockpile will allow us to carry out more research and could be offered as a possible first line of defence for NHS workers whilst the exact vaccine to match the pandemic flu strain is manufactured."
However, Ms Winterton conceded a vaccine could be of little use.
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is certainly true that if the H5N1 virus developed into a virus that could be passed between humans, you couldn't be absolutely clear that an H5N1 vaccine would be appropriate.
"If a human pandemic does develop, we would have to look at that point at the virus and then develop a vaccine from that.
"There is no guarantee that a vaccine would be appropriate in those circumstances. But we are working very closely to make sure that if it did turn into a virus that could be transferred between humans, that we would be able to work very quickly with industry to develop a vaccine."
According to Ms Winterton the UK is one of the best-prepared countries in the world for the possibility of a pandemic.
She stressed that the Government has already commissioned 14.6 million batches of the Tamiflu antiviral drug which reduces the severity of bird flu symptoms.
"What there is, is evidence of the H5N1 virus, for example, in wild birds. But at the moment there is no evidence of the H5N1 virus in domestic poultry and not even in wild birds in the UK."
Doubts have been raised about Chiron as its Liverpool factory was shut down for six months in 2004 because of concerns that its flu vaccines had been contaminated. The closure caused a shortage of flu jabs across the United States.
Healthcare firm Baxter has been commissioned to produce two million of the 3.5 million doses ordered.
The vaccine will be produced using a technique involving the cells from African green monkey kidneys - a technique which has successfully been used to develop vaccines against diseases for the past 20 years.
Traditionally, flu vaccines have been developed from hens' eggs but bosses at Baxter say in the face of a bird flu pandemic it would be unwise to rely on a vaccine derived from a bird species.
Noel Barrett, Baxter's vice president of research and development, said: "The unique feature of this technology is its robustness and its lack of dependency on the supply of hens' eggs.
"In a pandemic situation, with the virus emerging from an avian species, such a dependency on hens' eggs could put the supply of the vaccine at significant risk.
"The use of cell culture could reduce that risk significantly."
The company has been contracted to produce the vaccines by the end of this year, manufactured in the Czech Republic and stockpiled in Britain.
H5N1 has devastated poultry stocks and killed at least 92 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003, according to the World Health Organisation.
Mr Barrett warned that if the virus mutated to a pandemic form that could be easily passed between humans, there was no guarantee the current vaccine would work.
He said it was an "open question" whether the vaccine would protect against a pandemic strain, but believed that a vaccine would provide some level of protection.
"There may be some level of cross-protection, total cross-protection or no protection whatsoever, and we will never be able to demonstrate that unequivocally in clinical trials."
One advantage of the cell-culture technique is its speed, Mr Barrett said.
Vaccines can be produced 11 weeks after the exact strain of a pandemic virus is known, compared to six months for the technique involving hens' eggs.
Baxter is also in negotiations with the Government over the sleeping contracts to develop a vaccine once the exact strain of a pandemic virus is known.
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