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World health agency to call for bird flu vaccine

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ATLANTA -- Vaccine manufacturers and government representatives from around the world will convene in Geneva today to hear a plea from the World Health Organization that they begin working on vaccines to protect against a globe-spanning influenza pandemic.

But the plea may be insufficient, according to researchers and manufacturers, unless it comes with compensation for making a product for a problem that does not now exist.

The summit's chief goal will be to boost research on a vaccine against avian influenza H5N1. No vaccine exists that could protect humans against that strain of flu, which is greatly feared. It is extraordinarily lethal in poultry and other birds. So far this year, it has caused the death or destruction of hundreds of millions in eight countries. It also has a high human death rate; it has sickened 44 people and killed 32 of them this year.

"The situation has never been so tense as it has been right now, where we have a virus of pandemic potential circulating so widely," said Dr.

Klaus Stohr of the WHO's influenza program.

The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fear the H5N1 virus could gain the ability to move easily from person to person. That could create a worldwide pandemic against which humans would have no natural protection, such as with the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans and at least 40 million people around the world.

Three times, most recently last month, the H5N1 virus has briefly gained the ability to pass from person to person, but then fizzled out.

The summit includes 11 of the 16 companies that expressed interest in making an H5N1 vaccine -- including Chiron Corp. and Aventis Pasteur, which are both manufacturing H5N1 vaccine for clinical trials by the National Institutes of Health -- along with representatives of their countries' pharmaceutical-licensing agencies.

Contamination problems at Chiron's English manufacturing facility caused the loss of half of the United States' supply of flu shots for this winter and the lifting of Chiron's British manufacturing license for three months, but health authorities have said the Chiron H5N1 vaccine is not affected.

M.A.J. McKenna writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: Editor Notes:Story Filed By Cox Newspapers For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service

c.2004 Cox News Service


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