Bird Flu Vaccine Works in Humans
But if Mutant Flu Comes, Will Vaccine Match?
Aug. 8, 2005 -- For the first time ever, scientists have created a vaccine to prevent an epidemic that hasn't yet happened.
Why? The disease is bird flu -- the very lethal H5N1 strain of avian influenza virus. It's killed 57 of the 112 humans known to have caught it. So far, it's very unusual for one person to catch it from another. But that could change. If the bird flu virus mutates or recombines with a human flu virus, it could result in a strain that could easily spread from human to human.
If that happens -- and many experts say it's just a matter of time -- millions of people will die unless vaccinated ahead of time.
Early test results show the vaccine almost surely works, says study leader John Treanor, MD, professor of medicine and director of the vaccine and treatment evaluation unit at the University of Rochester, N.Y.
"We now have shown you can make a vaccine that is well tolerated and that, in humans, makes immune responses known to be protective against influenza," Treanor tells WebMD. "The results are quite robust."
The U.S. is getting ready to order millions of vaccine doses in addition to the 2 million doses it's already bought from drug maker Sanofi-Pasteur, a subsidiary of Aventis and a WebMD sponsor. The U.S. has also ordered bird flu vaccine from Chiron Corp., but tests of this vaccine have not yet begun.
No Need -- Yet -- to Seek Bird Flu Vaccination
It's not yet time to line up for bird flu shots, warns Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"This vaccine does not need to be deployed right now. We may never have to use this vaccine," Fauci tells WebMD. "We only made it, and we hope this never occurs, in case the current H5N1 bird flu now circulating in Asia develops the capability of spreading from person to person in a sustained manner. Then -- and only then -- would we think of deploying this vaccine."
If and when a bird flu pandemic occurs, a vaccine would be the "bedrock" of control efforts, Fauci says. But many other measures are under way. Greatly improved surveillance is discovering human bird flu infections faster than ever before. This would give public health authorities the chance to contain or at least slow the virus with tools such as patient isolation, antiviral medicines, and, if necessary, quarantine.