updated 8/17/2004 12:03:33 PM ET 2004-08-17T16:03:33

The National Institutes of Health awarded Chiron Corporation a $1.194 million contract to develop up to 40,000 doses of vaccine against H9N2 avian influenza, a type of bird flu that is less lethal but more widespread than the strain that killed 27 this year in Asia.

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The August issue of the Journal of Virology suggested the H9N2 strain has gotten hotter in recent years, killing far more lab mice than the same strain that circulated just four years earlier. That increased virulence, its prevalence among birds and the ability of the H9N2 virus to infect humans raises fears it could trigger a pandemic, scientists warned.

Already, the H9N2 bird flu showed its ability to strike at humans by sickening three people in Hong Kong in 1999 and 2003.

“Given the poor condition of public health systems in many developing regions and the ubiquity of modern air travel, the consequences of a widespread outbreak of avian influenza in humans could be severe,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Information generated under this contract will be important for preparing our nation and the world against new influenza viruses with pandemic potential.”

In May, Chiron received an NIAID contract to produce 8,000 doses of vaccine for H5N1, a more lethal strain of bird flu that has resurfaced in Asia.

Chiron will manufacture the H9N2 vaccine in Siena, Italy, using an inactivated strain of the virus provided by the Centers for Disease Control. The Emeryville, Calif.-based company will manufacture up to 40,000 doses of the vaccine. Some will contain a substance that increases the vaccine’s protective value and — perhaps — may permit the health agency to stretch its vaccine supply by lowering doses.

NIAID is scheduled to conduct clinical trials using both versions of the vaccine as early as 2005.

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