Maria Cheng, an expert on communicable diseases and bird flu at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, talks to DW-WORLD about the progress being made in developing a vaccine against avian influenza.
Bird flu has arrived in Germany
DW-WORLD: What is the status of a vaccine against bird flu for humans?
Maria Cheng: There are several countries working on bird flu vaccines. They’re using H5N1 strains that were circulating in Vietnam. The problem is that we can’t actually create an exact vaccine to match the pandemic strain until that strain actually emerges. But what they’re doing is essentially working on the premise that H5N1 will turn into a strain that causes a pandemic and hopefully that will give them the time to do the background work now so that it can be put into production as soon as the pandemic strain does emerge.
The fear is that the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu will mutate and cause new forms of human flu viruses. How can a vaccine be developed for something that does not yet exist?
Health officials in southern Italy examine a dead swan on Monday
Based on the idea that H5N1 will evolve into a form that will spark a pandemic, we can essentially do a lot of the research now so we can work on the existing H5N1 strains as if that will be the one to cause the pandemic. What companies can essentially do is file a lot of the paperwork that needs to be filed when that does come up so that the licensing agreements, clinical trials and safety requirements are done in advance. This bureaucracy and paperwork is then done ahead of time, so that when the pandemic strain does emerge, what they can do is switch the strains within the component for the vaccine and that can be put into commercial production.
So are you saying that to develop a vaccine, it’s often not the scientific research that is lagging behind, but the paperwork?
In the case of influenza, yes, because for influenza we do have vaccines, seasonal vaccines that get changed every year. Doing that for a pandemic vaccine would essentially be the same process. Of course, H5N1 is very different from normal, seasonal influenza, so a bit more research has to be done in terms of safety requirements and clinical trials. But in terms of licensing and things like liability -- who’s going to be responsible for this -- that can all be done ahead of time.
What about a vaccine against bird flu for animals?
WHO can’t really comment on that. We have to rely on our colleagues from the animal health authorities. We track human health more closely.
What can people do? In Germany, there are now the first reported and confirmed cases of bird flu. Do people just have to sit tight?
H5N1 is still primarily an animal disease
As far as the general public goes, I would emphasis that avian influenza, H5N1, is primarily an animal disease. It’s not something that transmits readily to humans at all. What we’re concerned about is if it mutates into a form that would spark a pandemic. Right now, WHO has the same recommendation as we do for normal, seasonal influenza. People in vulnerable groups such as the elderly or the very young get vaccinated. For the public, it’s about having their awareness raised and to practice good hygiene, like washing their hands. Beyond that, we can’t recommend much at this point since the pandemic has not emerged.
Nonetheless, some doctors recommend that people get vaccinated each year against the current forms of influenza. Why is that?
There are still about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths every year from influenza. So it is a very serious disease. By encouraging people to get vaccinated for that, it will hopefully lessen the burden of this disease.