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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
'I am testing new bird flu jab'
By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News

Fergus Walsh

The first medical trial in Britain of a vaccine against the bird flu virus H5N1 has begun in Oxford.

This is an experimental vaccine against a virus with deadly potential.

To see how well it works the Oxford Vaccine Group needs 150 volunteers.

Having witnessed the progress of the virus - H5N1 - from Asia to Europe, it seemed right for me to take part.

That meant a medical check-up and some blood samples before getting the vaccine.

Over the coming months I will get several blood tests.

These will show how my immune system has reacted to the vaccine - crucially whether it has produced enough antibodies in my blood to protect me from H5N1 in the future.

The trial is trying to find out what is an effective dose of the vaccine. It will monitor side effects in volunteers.

It is all part of a global effort to create an H5N1 vaccine.

Different doses

The trial is testing two different doses. Only by scratching off a panel just prior to receiving the jab did the research team know which one to give me.

I was selected to receive a 30 microgram dose with added adjuvants which are designed to enhance the immune response.

I will get a second dose of vaccine three weeks after the first, and another top up shot in six or 12 months time.

Dr Andrew Pollard
Dr Pollard says their work is a "dress rehearsal"

The researchers will compare the results of the people in my group with a second receiving a less powerful dose.

It was just a scratch, and so far there have been no ill effects.

Even in South East Asia the immediate threat to humans from the H5N1 virus is very low.

More than 100 people have died in the region, but in almost every case we know they have caught the virus directly from birds.

H5N1 would need to mutate into a new infectious strain to transmit between humans.

Dr Andy Pollard, who leads the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: "It is very important that we start to develop vaccines at this point that could allow us to save millions of lives in the future.

"We don't know the exact strain that is going to be there, but we have to have all the processes in place so we can make a vaccine quickly. It is like a dress rehearsal."

Huge demand

The Oxford team are trying to establish the minimum dose needed to protect people, because that will mean there is more to go round.

The potential for influenza to kill very large numbers of people is enormous
Professor Nick White

But the figures don't add up. If a flu pandemic happens the UK wants 120m doses of vaccine, enough for everyone to have two injections.

But currently only 90m doses of seasonal flu vaccine are produced for the whole of the EU each year.

So why not just stockpile experimental H5N1 vaccines?

That might help, but we don't know if this prototype vaccine will give any protection once a pandemic begins. The volunteers in Oxford may not be any better off than anyone else.

Only a vaccine made after a pandemic starts will guarantee protection, because then we will know the exact strain of the virus.

History tells us it could be a global killer.

Professor Nick White, an expert in tropical medicine who is also working on the trial, said: "We have to look back at probably the worst infection ever of human beings in terms of pandemic.

"That was the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 to which this virus bears a chilling resemblance.

"That killed between 20m and 40m people, and probably infected a third of the people on the planet.

"The potential for influenza to kill very large numbers of people is enormous."

Vaccine trials are a crucial part of the preparations against a flu pandemic - a health emergency we must hope won't hit us for many years.

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