The European Commission has granted the first licence to market a vaccine in preparation for a pandemic of H5N1 bird flu in Europe, British pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline said on Monday.
The ruling from the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) allows GSK to sell Prepandrix, which targets the most virulent strain of the virus that can be fatal to humans, in all 27 European Union member states.
"This vaccine marks a significant step in the world's ability to cope with an influenza pandemic," GSK chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier said.
The company said the vaccine is based on the strain of H5N1 currently circulating, which the World Health Organisation said on April 30 has killed 241 people, mainly in southeast Asia, since 2003.
Prepandrix is based on the Vietnam strain and been found to be effective in preventing death in 96 percent of cases, it added.
GSK said it had already signed contracts for the pre-pandemic vaccine with the United States and Switzerland plus a number of EU countries such as Finland.
A number of other drug firms, such as Switzerland's Novartis and France's Sanofi Aventis, have been working on bird flu vaccines, amid fears that a mutation of the virus could cause widespread outbreaks in humans.
Pre-pandemic vaccines are produced before a pandemic using currently circulating strains and provide immunisation against disease until a pandemic vaccine using the specific strain is created.
The EMEA's decision was expected after it said on February 22 that it had granted a "positive opinion" on Prepandrix and the pandemic vaccine Pandemrix.