NZ urged to make our own flu vaccine

By Kent Atkinson

A New Zealander who is an international expert on bird flu says health and agricultural authorities should be investigating making their own pandemic influenza vaccine in an emergency.

The possibility of using local scientific capacity, such as a hi-tech plant near Wellington manufacturing animal vaccines, should be considered as a back-up to sourcing pandemic flu vaccine from Australia, Professor Robert Webster said today.

He warned that if the bird flu presently spreading from Asia to Russia and Europe mutated to a form that could spread easily between humans, nations might not be able to count on getting medical supplies from other countries.

New Zealand has a contract with the Australian government's Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) to be supplied with a pandemic vaccine within 15 to 27 weeks after a pandemic is recognised by the World Health Organisation.

New Zealand expects to get eight million doses of the vaccine -- enough to treat the entire population with two doses -- but health authorities have warned that it may not be available until after at least one deadly wave of influenza has swept through the country.

"If a pandemic comes, borders are likely to close, and then so where are you going to get your vaccines and supplies from," Prof Webster said.

Unless New Zealand's contracts with overseas suppliers were "watertight", it was likely that overseas contractors would prepare vaccines for their local populations first.

"Maybe there should be an emergency establishment in New Zealand, where if push comes to shove, the technology could be used to produce vaccine in an emergency", he said.

Prof Webster, speaking after briefing staff at the Environmental Science and Research institute at Porirua today, said the technology should be available to New Zealand. "The technology for making vaccines is not that sophisticated,"; he said.

"Can the facilities for agricultural vaccine be turned over for a rapid way of making a vaccine that is safe for humans?"

He said the main reason a perfect vaccine could not be available until about six months after a pandemic was recognised was that a lot of time was taken up with safety testing.

But a master-strain could be made in two or three weeks, and if a that could be obtained, theoretically, New Zealand could manufacture vaccine while the safety tests were being conducted and have a local supply ready to go.

"If there is the infrastructure for making agricultural vaccines, we should at least talk to these people," he said.

Prof Webster said another possibility was to manufacture a vaccine based on the existing strains of H5N1 flu.

It would not be perfect, and would not stop people from falling ill, but could stop them from dying.

He recommended that much of the population should have the ordinary seasonal flu vaccinations which could provide a tiny bit of protection by boosting the immune system.

If the next flu pandemic -- which Prof Webster said may evolve from the H5N1 strains of bird flu already spreading -- is as virulent and infectious as the 1918 pandemic influenza, health authorities have said there is potential for a single, eight-week "wave" of infection to infect 1.6 million New Zealanders and kill 33,000 of them.

Other calculations, on a United States computer model, created by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, have estimated up to 3700 deaths in New Zealand from a first wave of pandemic influenza and up to a million people infected.

This model has suggested the death toll could rise as high as 6210 people from 20,806 cases of serious illness.

- NZPA

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