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Russia: Researchers Express Hope On Bird-Flu Vaccine

Geese in Tula, where the virus turned up in mid-October (AFP) Russian researchers are working on a prototype vaccine they say they hope might help stem a possible bird-flu pandemic. No vaccine currently exists for the H5N1 strain of the virus that can be fatal to humans, and it is almost impossible to predict the composition of the virus if and when it mutates to allow human-to-human transmission. But the Russian researchers say their vaccine will be tested on humans within days and, if trials prove successful, will go on sale next spring. Meanwhile, some Russian politicians are accusing foreign exporters of overplaying the threat posed by bird flu in an effort to stifle Russia’s poultry business.

Moscow, 27 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Some 20 Russian volunteers are about to be injected with a prototype vaccine against the H5N1 avian-flu virus that is potentially fatal to humans.

The vaccine is being developed by the Influenza Institute in St. Petersburg on the basis of samples obtained from Britain’s National Institute for Biological Standards Control.

Oleg Kiselyov, director of the Influenza Institute, is hopeful the vaccine will pass safety tests.

There is currently no vaccine available against bird flu, although a number of countries in addition to Russia are attempting to develop one.

Kiselyov tells RFE/RL that the vaccine could save lives in the event of a bird flu epidemic: “This is a reserve vaccine, which is meant to be used in case of an epidemic. If cases arose where people got sick during the spread of bird flu on Russian territory, we would quickly have to use this vaccine to vaccinate the rural population that came in contact with infected hens, ducks, and geese.”

Over the past few weeks, the flu has killed birds in several villages near Moscow as well as in Turkey, Croatia, and Romania, sparking fears that the virus might spread further to Europe’s heartland.

Kiselyov says his team is rushing against the clock to release a vaccine by spring 2006, when migratory birds, which are thought carry the disease, will return to Russia.

As Russia's chief epidemiologist Gennadii Onishchenko told reporters in Moscow this week, Russia is then likely to be hit by a new -- and more dangerous -- outbreak of bird flu: "In spring the birds that migrated to the Southern Hemisphere will return [to Russia] and will probably bring [avian flu] strains different from those they had and brought to western Siberia [in the fall of 2005]. So, our forecast is that it is quite possible that a new, perhaps more pathogenic, strain of the H5N1 virus, or maybe a new type of virus, will be brought into Russia during the spring migration from Southeast Asia, China, Africa, and the Mediterranean."

Bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Asia since it emerged in 2003. So far, the virus cannot jump from human to human. But health experts fear it is only a matter of time before it mutates with a form of human flu to create an infectious human strain that could kill millions worldwide.

EU officials have insisted that a useful bird-flu vaccine could only be created once H5N1 mutates into a strain that spreads between humans. They say such a virus could be very different from the current strain.

But Kiselyov says he is confident that his vaccine will remain efficient even against a mutated strain of bird flu.

“[The virus] can indeed change in such a way that it will start infecting people," Kiselyov says. "But [changes] are, after all, predictable. It will retain its properties. We do not expect significant changes.”

In Russia, however, some have scoffed at Kiselyov's efforts.

Sergei Lisovskii, a member of the upper house of parliament and the deputy head of Russia’s poultry farming union, is one of them. He dismisses efforts to release a vaccine as useless and says the threat of a bird-flu pandemic is largely exaggerated.

Lisovskii accuses Western poultry exporters -- in particular those from the United States -- of fanning bird-flu paranoia in Russia to hurt the country’s poultry business. Russia is currently the largest market for U.S. poultry.

Lisovskii tells RFE/RL that he even suspects foreign poultry businesses of masterminding a bird-flu outbreak in Russia by inoculating migratory bird with the virus.

“There is no tragedy in the situation surrounding bird flu in Russia," Lisovskii says. "The small outbreaks in private estates are normal veterinary situations that do not pose a threat to the poultry industry. But hysteria has already been pushed to the maximum, when some predict the death of millions of people for instance. We know about biological terror attacks, so why should this version not be considered? It’s neither expensive nor difficult.”

His comments echo earlier declarations by the nationalist Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov. Speaking to the State Duma recently, Mitrofanov had branded the bird-flu alarm in Russia “a provocation by Americans.”

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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