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St. Jude develops vaccine against potential pandemic influenza virus H5N1 using reverse genetics

(MEMPHIS, TENN.--April 2, 2003) Scientists at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital announced today the development of a vaccine against H5N1, a new lethal influenza virus that triggered the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a pandemic alert in February 2003.

The virus appeared in birds in Hong Kong late last year and subsequently killed one of two infected people with rapidly progressive pneumonia in the past month. St. Jude developed the vaccine in only four weeks from the time it received the H5N1 sample from colleagues in Hong Kong.

The announcement comes at a time when a second, as-yet-unidentified virus, has taken several lives around the world. The unknown virus, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), appears to have originated at the same time and in the same place as the new "flu."

The development of the initial ("seed") batch of H5N1 vaccine is significant because humans do not have a natural immunity to the virus, according to Robert Webster, Ph.D., a member of the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude. Rather, humans appear to become infected through contact with chickens and other birds. In the past the virus killed only the chickens it infected. But the new variant of H5N1 also killed many kinds of wild birds, which is unusual.

If H5N1 acquires the ability to pass from human to human, there would be the potential for concern similar to that for SARS, according to Webster.

"It's likely there were two things that prevented the 1997 poultry influenza outbreak in Hong Kong from becoming more deadly--its inability to spread from human to human and the slaughter of more than 1.5 million chickens and other birds in the open-air markets of Hong Kong, which eliminated the source of the virus," Webster said. "In fact, the sudden appearance of SARS in the same region of the world is just another warning that the large populations of people and poultry in this region are a potential sour
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Contact: Bonnie Cameron
bonnie.cameron@stjude.org
901-495-4815
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
2-Apr-2003


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