Bird-Flu Warning, Triggers Action; U.S. Reaches Vaccine Pacts

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Byline: Marguerite Higgins, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …