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China to begin testing SARS vaccine

Chinese researchers expect to begin human trials next month on an experimental SARS vaccine, a government drug official said Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chinese researchers expect to begin human trials next month on an experimental SARS vaccine, a government drug official said Monday. “We cannot tell yet whether it will be successful in humans, but we can say it is effective in animals, especially monkeys,” Yin Hongzhang, head of the biological product section of the State Food and Drug Administration, told The Associated Press.

The World Health Organization said it hasn’t been involved in Yin’s effort and wouldn’t comment on it directly. “One of the dangers in focusing on a vaccine is that people can become falsely reassured,” said Julie Hall, the SARS team leader in WHO’s Beijing office.

WHO believes a vaccine is at least a year or two away, and anti-SARS efforts in the meantime must remain focused on early detection and infection controls, she added.

“If SARS were to come back this winter, a vaccine would almost certainly not be ready,” Hall said in an interview.

Researchers around the world are seeking SARS vaccines, and Hall urged China to share the results of its tests with scientists in other countries to foster cooperation, peer review and verifiable adherence to safety precautions.

The Chinese agency is looking for human volunteers to test the vaccine, Yin said, adding it isn’t clear how long initial trials will take. He said the vaccine uses purified samples of the dead SARS virus.

China has already produced about 1,400 shots of the vaccine, and another 20,000 will be packaged and inspected by experts, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily reported.

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which scientists say is caused by a coronavirus, killed 774 people and sickened more than 8,000 before subsiding in July. In China, 349 people died.

News of China’s experimental vaccine received widespread coverage in state media Monday. The announcement of the upcoming tests came as cold weather returned to northern China, and residents of Beijing, one of the world’s hardest-hit cities, braced for the possible return of the virus.

The disease first surfaced in southern China a year ago, and scientists didn’t know what it was for several months. They still aren’t certain how it originated.

China’s last SARS patients were discharged from a Beijing hospital Aug. 16, the government said. There have been no clinically confirmed or even suspected SARS cases on the Chinese mainland since then, it said.

Earlier this month, officials at WHO’s Geneva headquarters lauded efforts to find a vaccine and said research should continue. But, like Hall, they said the immediate future must also be guarded.