Vaccine Companies Say They ‘Stand Ready’ for Potential H5N1 Bird Flu Outbreak in Humans

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Some of the largest vaccine companies in the developed world are reportedly preparing avian flu H5N1 shots for humans in case the virus were to mutate and become easily transmissible from person to person.

Vaccine makers GSK, Moderna, and CSL Seqirus told Reuters that they have begun developing or are about to test new human shots to target the currently circulating version of the virus. Others, such as Sanofi, said they have vaccines for the H5N1 virus in stock and “stand ready” to produce up-to-date shots based on existing ones.

Notably, Moderna said its H5N1 vaccines will be made using the same mRNA technology used in its COVID-19 vaccines. The Massachusetts-based company plans to start testing the bird flu shots on humans in the first half of 2023 and could “very quickly” in an outbreak scenario, reported Reuters, citing Raffael Nachbagauer, Moderna’s executive director of infectious diseases.

Virus Spread

Scientists have been closely watching as the virus jumped from Europe to North and South America, leaving behind a devastating trail of nearly 200 million dead birds and other animals since the initial October 2022 outbreak in a mink farm in northwestern Spain.

In the United States, more than 52 million birds in 46 states have either died from H5N1 infection or have been put down due to exposure to infected birds since February, marking the worst disaster ever hit the American poultry industry.

H5N1 infections in humans are extremely rare, as the World Health Organization reported (pdf) just four cases last year, including two in Spain, a fatal one in China, and one in the United States.

In February, health authorities of Cambodia confirmed that an 11-year-old girl contracted and died from the disease. But Cambodian officials said there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission, further noting that the strain that caused the girl’s death isn’t the same one killing birds en masse in Europe and the Americas.

In the past 20 years, there have only been 868 people diagnosed with H5N1 infection, although 457 of them were killed by the virus, representing a 53 percent case fatality rate.

By Bill Pan

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