With GlaxoSmithKline claiming to be able to produce far more doses of bird flu vaccine than its rivals the battle ground has been set to to create a cheap but effective human bird flu vaccine.
GSK is hoping to produce large quantities of the vaccine to challenge the H5N1 bird flu by next year following encouraging results in trials. Although most products are still in development many companies are already vying with each other to interest governments in their products. GSK's rivals Baxter and Chiron have already supplied Britain with 3.5m doses in £33m contracts, to protect health and other frontline workers in the event of a pandemic.
According to GSK it will use lower doses of active ingredient in the vaccine because it has a better adjuvant.
GSK is using an inactivated strain of H5N1 that was isolated in Indonesia last year. Companies are using the H5N1 strains that have been found over the last three years in south Asia. That is where the greatest threat exists, of avian flu in birds, changing to avian flu in humans followed by new pandemic strains.
10 countries have reported a total of 232 cases of confirmed avian flu so far with 134 people dying.
Indonesia, has reported 42 deaths of 54 who were infected with the disease. Fears exist of the virus mutating as the disease spreads within families or close-knit communities.
Although it is still not certain that any vaccine would be effective against H5N1 in humans against new pandemic strains it is expected to provide some immunity.
Nevertheless, this new generation of vaccines is better than the antivirals, large amounts of which are already used against traditional flu and are being stockpiled round the world as emergency treatments for symptoms of avian and pandemic flu too. A combination of all these would help to buy more time to develop vaccines against any pandemic strain, but this could probably take months. For now the government has placed 'sleeping contracts' for 120m doses of pandemic vaccine to ensure access to such a vaccine.
GSK conducted a trial run of the vaccine on some 400 adults in Belgium. It claimed that the vaccine had prompted a strong response in 80% of people tested. According to JP Garnier, its chief executive officer, said: 'There is still more work to be done, but the validation of our approach provides us with confidence to continue.'
If all goes well the vaccine would be put to medicine regulators in the coming months. Each shot of the vaccine is expected to cost around £4.In the meanwhile Glaxo is negotiating with groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Fund about funding it for poor countries.
The Department of Health said, 'We welcome developments which will help to increase vaccine capacity and will build these developments into our pandemic influenza planning.'