U.S. government steps up bird flu preparations

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In an effort to ramp up preparations for a possible avian flu pandemic, the U.S. government has awarded a $62.5 million contract to Chiron to manufacture millions of doses of a vaccine and approved nearly $8 billion to stockpile bird flu vaccines and treatments, The New York Times reported today.
The Chiron contract, announced yesterday by Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt, is the second for the manufacture of large quantities of bulk vaccine that would be stored in a government stockpile.
Sanofi-Aventis received a $100 million contract in September and is expected to deliver its vaccine by the end of the year.
The two contracts together are likely to provide enough vaccine to protect several million people. An exact figure is not known because scientists do not yet know how large a dose will be needed for each person. A government spokesperson said in the newspaper report that the Chiron contract would provide for 12 million doses.
Public health officials are worried that the H5N1 avian flu spreading among birds in Asia and Europe could mutate into a form that would easily infect people. However, if that new flu form is substantially different, the vaccines being made under the contracts may not work well. Government officials said the vaccines should provide at least partial protection until a new vaccine aimed more closely at the pandemic strain could be developed.
GlaxoSmithKline said yesterday it was working on a vaccine for a pandemic flu and was hoping for contracts from various governments. The firm also said it would be willing to allow other companies to produce its anti-flu drug Relenza.  
Meanwhile, in an effort to improve national readiness for a potential avian flu outbreak, the U.S. Senate has approved nearly $8 billion to stockpile vaccines and other drugs to combat the disease and bolster local health agencies and hospitals.
Under the proposal, $3 billion would be used to stockpile antiviral drugs to treat the deadly flu strain and $3 billion would go to acquire up to 120 million doses of an avian flu vaccine over the next two years.
Other money would go toward increased worldwide monitoring of the flu, public education programs and surveillance of migratory birds.
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