Providing enough vaccine to inoculate every Australian against pandemic bird flu would take about three-months once a vaccine was approved, pharmaceutical manufacturer CSL said.
Melbourne-based CSL is sponsoring a trial of 400 Australian volunteers to test the effectiveness and safety of a candidate avian flu vaccine amid growing fears of a pandemic.
The strain under trial was taken from a bird flu victim in Vietnam and neutralised to prevent it from being contagious.
A particularly virulent strain of avian flu, known as H5N1, has already killed more than 60 people in four Asian countries since 2003, mostly in Vietnam.
Final data from the Australian trial is not expected until the middle of next year.
But CSL’s Rachel David said if a pandemic broke out before then, the company would work closely with the federal government and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to produce an acceptable vaccine as soon as possible.
She said once the TGA registered a pandemic flu vaccine, the first batches would be ready within six weeks.
“We should have enough to give every Australian a dose within three-months,” Dr David said.
“It’s a pretty quick process.”
CSL is among a handful of companies worldwide racing to have a pandemic flu vaccine ready just in case.
Most of the people who have already died from H5N1 have had direct contact with infected birds.
But scientists are worried if avian flu mixes with a type of human flu, it may develop into a new, highly infectious strain that’s easily transmitted between people.
If that happens, the virus could spread by people simply coughing and sneezing.
Virologist Ian Gust, director of WHO’s Collaborating Centre on Influenza in Melbourne, said preparations to limit deaths and hospitalisations in the event of a pandemic were the most extensive in world history.
“I think that if you look at Australia’s response and compare it with the rest of the world, it would be as good as any country,” Professor Gust said.
He said deaths of millions of birds from the H5N1 virus were unprecedented in scale.
“Outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza occur relatively commonly, but they’re normally of a small scale and very easily controlled,” Prof Gust said in an interview.
“The outbreaks that we’ve seen of avian flu in Asia and now moving towards Europe are totally unprecedented.
“This is tens or even hundreds of millions of birds involved whereas normally it’s a few hundred or a few thousand.”
The first of 200 Melbourne volunteers are due to have one of two jabs with the trial vaccine by the end of the week and Adelaide volunteers will begin being inoculated next Monday.