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Federal health officials aim to develop a vaccine to protect people from bird flu


The bird flu that's now spreading among cows does not yet appear to pose an imminent threat to most people, but federal health officials say they've started to develop a vaccine to protect people just in case. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us now with an update on that effort. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So is the U.S. government ready to make sure we have a vaccine if we need one to fend off a bird flu pandemic?

STEIN: Well, Michel, according to the government, the answer is basically yes. Dawn O'Connell from the Health and Human Services Department told me the government already has the building blocks for a possible vaccine stash in an emergency stockpile.

DAWN O'CONNELL: We've got some preparedness pieces in place that we're pleased will give us a head start, should we need to have a large-scale vaccine campaign in a pandemic situation.

STEIN: And that includes two vaccines that look like they could protect people, plus stocks of a chemical additive known as an adjuvant to boost their effectiveness.

O'CONNELL: We actually have manufactured small lots of both of the candidates, so we have some to the tune of hundreds of thousands in pre-filled syringes and in vials that could be deployed fairly quickly.

MARTIN: OK, so Rob, not to be nit-picky - hundreds of thousands sounds like a lot, but is that enough?

STEIN: Well, you know, no, nowhere near enough, really. The U.S. population is 330 million, and everyone would need two doses. But O'Connell says the government also has the raw material to make 10 million more doses within weeks, plus another 125 million doses within about four months, and that could give breathing room to ramp up, you know, to eventually crank out enough vaccine for everyone if another pandemic actually becomes a threat.

MARTIN: Now, I know you have a lot of outside source experts. What do they say? Is this a realistic plan?

STEIN: Well, Michel, I have to say, some of the outside experts I've been in touch with are pretty skeptical. Here's Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: The first thing we have to do is eliminate the sense of what I call happy talk. Estimates of stockpiles that currently exist, and the potential to use them should this virus emerge into a human pathogen where it's transmitted by humans to humans, I think have been unfortunately overstated.

STEIN: For one thing, Osterholm says it remains unclear how well the two candidate vaccines would really work, and even if those two vaccines in the stockpile are effective, it would take months to make enough. Rick Bright is a former government vaccine scientist.

RICK BRIGHT: I do not think we are ready with our vaccine enterprise to be able to respond fast enough. There's a lot of gaps in our preparedness response. We don't have a prioritization strategy on who to vaccinate first, we don't have a distribution plan in place if we need to distribute vaccines, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done.

STEIN: You know, dairy farm workers will probably be at the front of the line to get vaccinated, followed by first responders. Now, O'Connell acknowledges that none of this would be easy, but she says the mRNA technology that made the COVID vaccines could potentially quickly jump in to make pandemic flu shots, too, if needed. But, you know, Michel, just one more thing. Even if enough safe and effective vaccines could be produced fast enough, it's unclear how many people would get one, given the lingering resistance to vaccines from the COVID pandemic.

MARTIN: That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, you know, sobering but informative, as usual. Thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.