Japan prepares to produce bird flu vaccine

Japan will spend 100 million yen (US$8 40,000; Ђ712,900) to develop prototypes of a bird flu vaccine, officials said Friday. Japanese researchers hope to produce a vaccine prototype for the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, so that they would be better prepared to create a human vaccine in case the virus mutates into a form that passes easily between people, said Tomohiko Arai, head of a government advisory panel on science.

At least 67 people have died from H5N1 in Asia since 2003 in cases that have largely been traced to direct contact with sick birds. Health experts fear that a human pandemic could be sparked if the virus mutates into a human flu strain. "Flu infection from birds are spreading overseas and people are dying. Considering the situation, we must act as quickly as possible," Science and Technology Minister Iwao Matsuda said.

The Japanese plan calls for speedier development and approval of flu vaccines, Arai said. Currently, vaccine production requires several months of development plus safety screening before clinical use. "A prototype would help us develop a vaccine in the wake of a new type of influenza, which could involve a virus quite similar to the H5N1 strain," Arai said, adding that the project would aim for results by March 2006.

Earlier this month, the Health Ministry announced a bird flu plan that calls for creating a stockpile of Tamiflu, an anti-flu drug, for approximately 25 million people over the next five years. According to the ministry, a flu pandemic could kill between 170,000 and 640,000 people in Japan, and between 530,000 and 2 million people would be hospitalized. Bird flu hit Japan last year for the first time in decades. There have been several outbreaks of the dangerous H5N1 variety among birds in the country, and one confirmed human case in December, but nobody has died, reports the AP. N.U.

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