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U.S. developing new bird flu vaccine

Doses already produced are ineffective against mutated strain

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Secretary Michael Leavitt, shown in November, said a vaccine already produced is not yet being distributed.

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Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
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Michael Leavitt

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A second vaccine against the deadly H5N1 virus is under development, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Monday.

"Today, I'm going to be authorizing the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to begin the process of developing a new vaccine to deal with the mutated virus," he said.

Leavitt made the announcement while addressing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 40th National Immunization Conference, an annual meeting of public health workers from around the United States, held in Atlanta, Georgia, this week.

The National Institutes of Health has already developed and tested one vaccine against the deadly H5N1 based on the virus found in one patient in Vietnam.

So far, 8 million doses of this vaccine have been produced, but because the drug is still in clinical trials, it is not being distributed yet, Leavitt said.

The new vaccine would use a strain of the H5N1 virus found in Indonesia.

Scientists at the CDC, in collaboration with researchers in Hong Kong, have determined that the first NIH-developed vaccine is not effective against the strain circulating in Indonesia.

Leavitt explained that it has been known that the virus continues to change and that the CDC has found a "seed" virus of the new form of H5N1, and it will be used for the next vaccine.

"HHS will proceed with a new pilot program to develop a vaccine based on the second version of H5N1," Leavitt told several hundred local and state immunizations personnel.

One of the researchers who isolated the new strain of H5N1 that will serve as the seed, Dr. Reuben Donis, said the discovery of a new strain does not render the first 8 million doses useless.

"The vaccine is good for the virus that's circulating in Thailand and Vietnam," he told CNN.

He explained that there are at least two groups of the deadly H5N1 virus. One comes from Vietnam and the second comes from Indonesia, while there also may be a couple of other groups.

Now that the seed virus for another vaccine has been identified, vaccine manufacturers who are interested can begin producing it.

According to the CDC, H5N1 virus typically does not infect humans, but infections have occurred in people, mostly resulting from close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.

But because all influenza viruses can change, scientists worry that H5N1 could eventually mutate to more easily infect humans and spread from person to person.

Since December 2003, H5N1 infections in poultry or wild birds have been reported in more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The virus was discovered last week in a cat found dead on the island of Ruegen, in northern Germany. That prompted German authorities to order all domestic cats kept indoors and dogs kept on leashes in areas affected by bird flu.

Polish authorities this week confirmed cases of avian influenza in two dead swans found in Torun. (Full story)

Since January 2004, the World Health Organization has reported human cases of H5N1 in seven countries: Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

According to WHO, more than half of the laboratory-confirmed cases have been fatal.

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