Britain plans to buy enough vaccine to protect the entire population in case a deadly bird flu virus develops into a pandemic strain capable of killing millions of people, the government said on Wednesday.
Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson said vaccine manufacturers are being invited to tender contracts to supply 120 million doses, enough for two shots per person, once the pandemic strain is known.
“A vaccine to protect against pandemic flu cannot be made until the new virus is known,” Donaldson said.
“We’re asking vaccine companies to gear up to supply us with pandemic flu vaccine even though at this stage we can’t give them the strain, nobody can,” he told a news conference.
The move would put Britain at the front of the line in getting a vaccine if a pandemic emerged.
Scientists believe a human flu pandemic is already overdue.
They are worried that the H5N1 bird flu virus that has been circulating in Asia since 1997, and has been reported in birds in Russia, Turkey and Romania, could evolve into a highly infectious strain in humans similar to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.
Samples of a bird flu virus from a turkey in Greece are also being tested to see if it is lethal bird flu.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has jumped to humans and killed 60 people in Asia. Twice as many have been infected but so far it is not easily transmissible from person-to-person -- a prerequisite for a pandemic strain.
To become a pandemic strain the H5N1 bird flu would have to mutate on its own or mix its genetic material with a human influenza virus to become highly infectious in humans who would have little or no immunity against it.
An effective vaccine is the only measure that will defeat a human flu pandemic but it could take 4-6 months if a pandemic strain emerged to identify it and develop a vaccine.
Donaldson said the so-called sleeping contracts would be incentive for vaccine manufacturers to gear up to supply a vaccine because they would know they had the contract if a pandemic emerges.
“We regard pandemic flu as public health enemy number one and we are on the march against it,” he said.
Several companies are working to develop a pandemic flu vaccine, including Sanofi-Aventis SA, GlaxoSmithKline plc and Chiron Corp.
The move is the latest in Britain’s contingency plans for dealing with a possible influenza pandemic. In March it announced that it was buying 14.6 million courses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche .
The stockpile, which will cost about 200 million pounds ($350.6 million), will be completed by September 2006.
The drug reduces the severity of flu and is considered a first line of defense until scientists can develop a vaccine.
The European Commission has advised member states to stockpile antiviral drugs. Officials also plan to hold talks with the vaccine manufacturers.