A vaccine to protect humans from deadly bird flu could take up to six months to develop and will probably not be ready in time to stop the outbreak now sweeping Asia, a World Health Organization official said on Monday.
“It doesn’t look good for this flu season in the northern hemisphere. It looks like the cavalry’s going to arrive too late,” Peter Cordingley, spokesman at the WHO’s East Asia headquarters in Manila, said in an interview.
Cordingley said the first batches of vaccine could be ready in four months, although raising production sufficiently to cover millions of people in Asia would take substantially longer.
“The first batches could be available in four months. If it doesn’t go so well, it may take up to six months. But getting up production levels to make a difference would be weeks and weeks after that,” he said.
Disease spread rapidly
WHO-linked laboratories are working to come up with a prototype vaccine for the new strain of bird flu sweeping the region, which would then be passed on to commercial laboratories for production.
The disease has spread rapidly through at least eight Asian countries, prompting the culling of millions of chickens, killing seven people and raising concern of a human pandemic that available vaccines would be powerless to stop.
The human victims are all believed to have caught the disease after coming into contact with sick chickens and experts say eating well-cooked chicken is safe.
But the big fear is that the virus may attach itself to a human flu virus, mutate and spread between people.
Cordingley said the outbreak could not be blocked by a vaccine developed from a strain of bird flu that hit Hong Kong in 1997, meaning researchers had to create an entirely new vaccine.
“The virus that’s around now is not the same as the one that was in Hong Kong. It’s mutated and we have to start again from the drawing board to create a prototype vaccine from this virus,” Cordingley said.
Poorer countries vulnerable
The WHO is concerned that poorer countries bordering Thailand are vulnerable to the virus, and their weak health infrastructure would make battling an outbreak very difficult, he said.
“We have to make sure the virus hasn’t gone into Myanmar. Laos is another problem,” Cordingley said.
“Laos also has a very poor public health infrastructure, so we worry in particular that if the virus became embedded in Laos, we’ll have very serious problems.”