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Government Signs Contract for Bird Flu Vaccine

But Amount, Total Cost, and Date of Delivery Still Not Known
By
WebMD Health News

Sept. 15, 2005 (Washington) -- The federal government says it has signed a $100 million contract to buy the first round of vaccine against bird flu. It's a critical part of the Bush administration's yet-to-be finalized response plan for a possible pandemic.

The contract is the first move in a plan to stockpile enough vaccine to protect 20 million Americans against bird flu. Neither federal officials nor the vaccine's manufacturer yet know how many doses the U.S. will actually receive for the money.

According to the CDC, bird flu viruses do not usually infect humans. But several instances of human infections and outbreaks of bird flu have been reported since 1997. Most cases of bird flu infection in humans are thought to have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces, such as cases that have occurred in Asia.

Person-to-Person Transmission

Since influenza viruses have the potential to change and gain the ability to spread easily between people, monitoring and preparing for human infection and person-to-person transmission is important.

The H5N1 bird flu strain has spread to humans from livestock and wild birds in Southeast Asia but has so far shown only a very limited ability to spread between humans. Public health experts consider person-to-person transmission to be the key ingredient for what many have warned could be a catastrophic bird flu pandemic.

The disease has sickened 112 people and killed 57 since December 2004, according to the World Health Organization.

Fighting Flu With Antiviral Drugs

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it bought 84,300 treatment courses of the antiviral (flu drug) Relenza from manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline. Antiviral drugs can lessen the severity of flu if they are taken within the first 48 hours after infection. The bird flu virus that is circulating in Southeast Asia appears to be sensitive to the antiviral drugs used against the flu.

"These countermeasures provide us with tools that we have never had prior to previous influenza pandemics," HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said in a statement.

The vaccine contract between the government and manufacturer Sanofi-Pasteur was actually signed on Aug. 19, according to Sanofi-Pasteur spokesman Len Lavenda; the Bush administration did not announce the agreement until today.

The contract comes weeks after federal researchers announced that an experimental vaccine against the H5N1 flu strain, the virus known to cause bird flu, produced protection against the virus in humans. The company has already begun production of a bulk form of the vaccine that is due for completion in December, Lavenda says.

Dose Numbers Undetermined

Still, officials still don't know how many effective doses of the vaccine will be attainable from the bulk form or when it will be ready for use in the event of a pandemic.

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