Hong Kong and US scientists have developed a new vaccine against the H5N1 bird flu virus which could be cheaper and more effective than its predecessors, the University of Hong Kong said today. Microbiologists from the university and the National Institutes of Health in the United States said the vaccine, created by genetically modifying a smallpox vaccine, had a quicker immune response than existing alternatives.
As such, it was a potential solution to future H5 pandemics. "A single dose of the vaccine will provide rapid protective immune responses," the university said in a statement. "In a H5 pandemic situation, such vaccines may have to be deployed at short notice. The induction of good and rapid protective immune response after the first dose of vaccine is a major advantage," it said. The production of the vaccine does not require sophisticated facilities, making it easier for poor countries to produce, the university said.
The team hopes the new vaccine can ride on the various advantages of the smallpox vaccine, which is very cheap and has a shelf life of several years, according to a report today in the South China Morning Post. Smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979. Hong Kong was the scene of the world's first reported major H5N1 bird flu outbreak among humans in 1997, when six people died. Around 250 people have died of the human form of avian flu since 2003, according to the World Health Organisation.
Most had close contact with sick birds, but scientists fear the virus could one day mutate into a form that would spread rapidly among humans, causing a pandemic. In December, authorities found H5N1 in a chicken at a poultry farm in Hong Kong, prompting the slaughter of more than 90,000 chickens. About a dozen wild birds found in different parts of the city have tested positive in recent weeks for the deadly strain.