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Scientists in Desperate Race With Bird Flu

Will Killer Flu Bug Emerge Before We Are Ready?

Race Against Time continued...

There's already a prototype vaccine. This vaccine may not match the pandemic virus that eventually breaks out. But making it, testing it, and licensing it will greatly speed a better vaccine should the need arise, Treanor says.

The current vaccine requires two high-dose shots, many weeks apart. Treanor and others already are working on higher-potency vaccines. And the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases today announced that it is working with a drug company to use new technology to rapidly produce live vaccines using weakened, genetically engineered flu viruses. Such vaccines could protect against any possible flu virus.

Meanwhile, governments are racing to stockpile Tamiflu and Relenza. Right now, there is not nearly enough. But drug manufacturers are stepping up production. If the bird flu waits a few more years, the world will be in a lot better position to fight back.

"I do believe that this is now getting attention at the highest levels -- and we need that," Morse says. "Our capacity to make vaccines now is woefully inadequate. The nimbleness with which we can make new vaccine is questionable. We need the capacity to make vaccines rapidly. We need a stockpile of antiviral agents. If pandemic flu happened in the next year, we would have to do a lot of scrambling. If it happened in 10 years, the question is how much we are able to sustain the concern we have now."

SOURCES: Hayden, F.G. The New England Journal of Medicine, Sept. 19, 2005; vol 353: pp 1374-1385. Frederick G. Hayden, MD, professor of clinical virology and internal medicine, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. John Treanor, MD, professor of medicine; and director, vaccine and treatment evaluation unit, University of Rochester, New York. Stephen Morse, PhD, founding director, Center for Public Health Preparedness, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York.

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