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Aventis to Produce Avian Influenza Vaccine for HHS

Kate Traynor

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today awarded a contract to Aventis to produce 2 million doses of an experimental vaccine against an avian influenza H5N1 strain.

HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement that the project is "an important first step toward preparing our nation to respond to a pandemic influenza outbreak."

Avian influenza type H5N1 viruses are blamed for 41 cases of human disease this year in Asia, including 29 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The seed virus used in the experimental Aventis vaccine is derived from a virus isolated in February from a Vietnamese patient. Aventis contracted with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in May to produce 8,000–10,000 doses of the vaccine for use in clinical trials.

The prospect of an influenza pandemic involving an avian virus sends chills through the public health community because most people would be susceptible to infection and millions could die from influenza-related disease. The two most recent influenza pandemics were caused by viral strains that arose from genetic recombination between human and avian influenza viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HHS in August released a draft influenza pandemic response plan, which described vaccination as "the primary strategy to reduce the impact of a pandemic."

Aventis will receive nearly $13 million to produce and store 2 million bulk doses of H5N1 vaccine for HHS. According to the agency, the vaccine would be used to protect laboratory and public health workers during a pandemic and could be made available to the general public if needed.

Like most currently marketed influenza virus vaccines, the experimental H5N1 vaccine is grown in eggs and then inactivated and purified. Aventis in January reached an agreement with Netherlands-based Crucell N.V. to produce modern cell-culture-derived influenza virus vaccines, which the companies hope may ultimately replace vaccines produced in eggs.