Bird flu vaccine: American H5N1 outbreak helping drug company start new tests

Health Canada has granted a vaccine plant in Baltimore the green light to make millions of doses of the bird flu vaccine just as doctors continue to closely monitor H1N1 infections.

Earlier this month, Health Canada gave Sinovac Biotech Ltd. the all-clear to test the clinical trials of a vaccine for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu as early as this summer. The company must also demonstrate a positive efficacy and safety profile to the government before beginning any human testing.

According to Vancouver’s Fraser Health Authority, about 96 cases of H5N1 infection have been reported since October, including two deaths. The rates of infection have increased to 200 cases per week in December and in January the number dipped to approximately 50 cases per week.

Sinovac officials said they must start clinical trials of their Shingrix product this year as early as the summer in order to protect the general public. The shots will use a genetic material from a Shingrix strain to manufacture vaccine against the deadly strain of avian flu.

The company’s plant in Baltimore received a health department authorization to produce around five million doses of the vaccine in a previous study. They are currently awaiting a permit for the new product.

Justin Barnes, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, is skeptical about whether this new bird flu vaccine will be effective.

“This is a very heterogeneous strain. If it’s a good, single-gen or a neutralizing strain, it’s quite easy to do a lot of studies to see if they are safe and effective. In order to make a more effective vaccine, you have to be able to isolate the proteins from the virus and you have to be able to make the virus strain more homogenous,” Barnes said.

Barnes, who researches avian flu infection, added that the only other bird flu shot on the market was approved 15 years ago and still is not covered by Canadian health care.

“The bug is growing and the virus itself is evolving, so it’s hard to be confident in a vaccine today,” Barnes said.

Sinovac Biotech officials said they plan to produce the doses for public health protection in the following years.

“Our commitment is to launch vaccines if they meet Health Canada’s needs as soon as we can. If the vaccine is only single-gene or a combination, it’s not much safer than the vaccine at this time,” Sinovac Biotech spokesman Dr. Jianliang Lin said.

Barnes, meanwhile, has his own outlook on the bird flu vaccine.

“It’s going to be ineffective,” Barnes said. “It’s impossible to make a vaccine from a gene sequence that’s in two influenza viruses.”

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