- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The United States is responding rapidly to concerns about a possible outbreak of avian influenza, awarding a spate of contracts over the past few weeks to stockpile flu-fighting vaccines and drugs.

The World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, predicted this summer that bird flu will likely become the first human-flu pandemic since 1968.

Dr. David Nabarro, the organization’s newly appointed U.N. coordinator for avian influenza, on Thursday projected a bird-flu outbreak could kill between 5 million and 150 million people worldwide. The next day, the U.N. health agency lowered its forecast to 2 million to 7.4 million deaths.

The U.S. government has reacted to the flu threat by awarding several contracts for increased vaccine development and production.

“What this is reflecting is a very intense commitment and effort by the government to be prepared for a flu pandemic,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.

“I think you will see over the next couple months an even greater effort,” he said.

The health research institute last week tapped MedImmune Inc., a Gaithersburg biotechnology company, to develop and test nasal-spray vaccines for influenza, including the H5N1 virus strain, which has caused the bird-flu epidemic in Asia.

MedImmune already markets a nasal-spray flu vaccine. Terms of its agreement with the institute were not disclosed.

The institute, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), two weeks earlier awarded a $2.9 million grant to Vical Inc. of San Diego to develop a DNA-based vaccine to guard against naturally emerging forms of bird flu.

HHS also has invested in a bird-flu vaccine with a $100 million contract award last month to Sanofi Pasteur, the Swiftwater, Pa., vaccine business of French drug company Sanofi-Aventis Group. Sanofi Pasteur will make a vaccine that will protect against the H5N1 virus strain.

Dr. Fauci’s institute since March has been testing another vaccine Sanofi Pasteur made from an inactive strain of avian influenza. Preliminary tests in August showed promise.

HHS last month bought 84,300 doses of zanamivir, an antiviral drug marketed as Relenza that treats bird flu, from British drug company GlaxoSmithKline for $2.8 million.

The health agency is stockpiling zanamivir and oseltamivir, another antiviral drug that treats influenza. Oseltamivir, sold as Tamiflu, is made by Roche Laboratories Inc., the Nutley, N.J., subsidiary of Roche, a Basel, Switzerland, pharmaceutical company.

The U.S. has about 2.3 million Tamiflu doses in storage and plans to have 2 million more by December, with the goal of having the treatment available for 25 percent of the nation’s population, Dr. Fauci said.

The U.S. government hopes to increase the number of manufacturing plants that can make flu vaccines, he added.

Bird-flu vaccine production faces the same problems that have plagued traditional flu-vaccine companies, said Dr. Marie Vodicka of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Factory space is limited because of high costs and regulatory hurdles, said Dr. Vodicka, assistant vice president for biotechnology and biologics for the Washington trade group.

HHS is considering relaxing some regulations or offering tax rebates to manufacturers, but has not decided yet how it will lure more companies to the vaccine market, Dr. Fauci said.

The U.S. faced a flu-shot shortage last year after British health authorities shut down a Liverpool factory operated by Chiron Corp., a major flu-vaccine supplier with headquarters in Emeryville, Calif.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently projected that four manufacturers will provide up to 97 million doses of vaccine for this year’s flu season. The agency would not say how many doses will be needed for the coming season.

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