By Marie Frail
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's home-grown human bird flu vaccine is at least a year away from hitting the market but clinical tests on people have been approved by the government, head of the research drug company said on Friday.
Development of the vaccine -- called Panflu -- started last year after bird flu outbreaks in Thailand and Vietnam and animal trials have already been completed, said Yin Weidong, managing director of Sinovac Biotech.
Underscoring the urgency of the research, China this week said that a second person had died of the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, and health officials expect there to be more deaths as the pandemic in poultry continues to spread in China. "It is not a virus that is spreading from human to humans, so we are very optimistic," Yin told Reuters in an interview.
H5N1 made its first known jump to humans in Hong Kong in 1997, killing six people. The virus resurfaced in late 2003 and is known to have infected 130 people in several parts of Asia, killing 68 of them. "It is not decided yet when the human trials will begin. We just got approval on November 22 by the State Food and Drug Administration and now we are adjusting our research schedule according to the approval," Yin said.
Initial human testing on 100 volunteers will take 210 days and then there will be a production cycle of 128 days before the vaccine is ready for market, said Yin from his office near the university district in northwest Beijing. "I can't say specifically when we will start human trials, but we will begin as soon as possible."
SARS BEATEN, BIRD FLU NEXT
Experts say experimental vaccines for bird flu are unlikely to be a good match for an H5N1 strain that may eventually emerge in transmissible form among humans. Using current technology it takes 6 months or more to make a new flu vaccine and there is no way to predict what a pandemic strain might look like.
As a measure of the importance the government attaches to the company, which also makes ordinary influenza and hepatitis vaccines, Premier Wen Jiabao visited Sinovac Biotech last week.
Pictures in the entrance of the facility, which is partly government-funded, show a visit by President Hu Jintao as well. The company also researched a vaccine for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which surfaced in southern China in 2003, spread to the rest of Asia and North America and killed hundreds of people. Development stopped when the crisis abated, though the firm is proud of its association with SARS. A red banner hanging over the entrance to the laboratory reads: "We have successfully conquered SARS and we are confident we can conquer bird flu."
China, the world's largest poultry-producing nation, has confirmed three cases of human bird flu. The third person, a nine-year-old boy, recovered. His dead sister is a suspected case. Yin said he was confident of success, though. "The development of the human bird flu vaccine is pure influenza vaccine research and it has less uncertain factors than SARS research," he said. "The possibility of successful research is greater than with the SARS vaccine."