China's bird flu vaccine already on trial amid forecasts of disaster

As scientists in the west warned of a possible global pandemic killing millions, China has apparently developed vaccines that block the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu among birds and mammals.

There is grave fear among scientists that avian flu, which is infectious in birds but does not spread easily among humans, could mutate into a form more capable of passing from animals to people.

It was eight years ago that the H5N1 strain of the virus first surfaced in poultry in Hong Kong and China, and it has since killed 37 people in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.

Global health officials fear if it does mutate it could rival the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed between 20 and 40 million people.

Chen Hualan, director of the China National Bird Flu Reference Laboratory is quoted as saying in the last 24 hours that experiments show the efficiency rate of the newly developed vaccines in preventing infection by the H5N1 virus is 100 percent. China's Ministry of Agriculture has already given its approval, and a sales permit, for the vaccines. Whether the treatments had been evaluated outside the country was not mentioned.

The agency said supplies of the new vaccines had already been sent to remote western Qinghai province, where China has been struggling to contain its first bird flu outbreak since late 2004, following the death of 178 geese from the H5N1 virus on May 4.

News agency Xinhua reports that the new vaccines have prevented the spread of avian flu from migratory birds to waterfowl, which could easily pass the disease on to domesticated birds.

China says it is willing to provide technical anti-epidemic support to other countries, and poultry farms in Vietnam have already begun experimenting with the Chinese vaccines.

Michael Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, says time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic,and there is a critical need for comprehensive medical and non-medical pandemic planning at the ground level that goes beyond what has been considered so far.

Scientists say any bird flu pandemic will probably start in Asia and could kill many millions.

New influenza strains have caused pandemics in the past, most recently in 1956-1957 and 1967-1968, killing a combined 4.5 million people.

Michael Osterholm's comments can be read in full in a special section of the journal Nature devoted to avian flu.

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