Australia will consider vaccinating its entire population of 20 million people against bird flu if trials of a human vaccine are successful.
Health Minister Tony Abbott said the government was working closely with pharmaceutical company CSL to develop a human vaccine for the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus that has killed more than 60 people in south-east Asia.
“If the live trials currently taking place look promising … we will consider whether we need to build up a supply of this drug, such that if necessary we can vaccinate the whole population,” Abbott said.
Most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could mutate and become transmissible between humans, sparking a global pandemic.
Australia’s health department has estimated that as many as 13,000 people could die in Australia if a pandemic were to occur, with a further 58,000 people needing hospital treatment, Abbott said.
There is currently no human vaccine for bird flu, but some scientists believe an anti-flu drug, Tamiflu, may help humans resist the disease.
Australia has stockpiled 3.9 million doses of Tamiflu, but Abbott has said that medication would most likely be given to medical staff and other essential service workers.
“In the end, the best thing the Australian government can do is ensure that if there is a pandemic outbreak, we are as well prepared as possible domestically to deal with it,” Abbott said.
Abbott said the vaccine trials were expected to be completed by the end of the year and the government would then decide whether to “produce a very large quantity of this candidate vaccine”.
Meanwhile, the Australian division of GlaxoSmithKline has said it will start a new manufacturing line at its plant in the southern state of Victoria to boost production of its anti-flu drug, Relenza.
Ian Barr, a World Health Organisation official at the Centre for Influenza in Melbourne, applauded the move and said he would like to see more anti-flu drugs produced.
“It’s always an issue of supply and demand with these companies that if the demand is there then usually they will build the supply to meet that demand,” he said.
“However it does take a long time to actually get a facility up to speed for producing any drug, much less a complicated drug like Relenza.”