Thousands Volunteer For Swine Flu Vaccine Test

Correction Aug. 11, 2009

In our swine flu update, NPR reporter Joanne Silberner said that previous seasonal flu vaccines have all been safe. As she and other NPR reporters have noted in other stories, there are questions about the safety of a flu vaccine used in 1976. After an unexpected outbreak of swine flu that year, a new vaccine was developed and used in 40 million people. Several hundred cases of a neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome developed among those vaccinated, including 25 deaths. Researchers who studied the incident still are not sure whether it was the vaccine that caused the syndrome or if some viral infection or other cause was responsible for those cases of GB.

The federal government has started testing vaccines against the swine flu. About 2,800 volunteers at eight sites across the country will be rolling up their sleeves in the next week to receive experimental flu shots. U.S. Health officials are preparing for a possible fall outbreak.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan.

The federal government has just started testing vaccines against the new H1N1 swine flu. Two thousand eight hundred volunteers at eight sites across the country will be rolling up their sleeves in the next week. That because last spring's flu is expected back soon. NPR's Joanne Silberner is here to catch us up on where swine flu has been and where it's going.

Joanne, good morning.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how has swine flu spent its summer vacation?

SILBERNER: Well, it's gone to the southern hemisphere, especially South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. It's going strong there. In the U.S. it's gone to camp. It's been at a number of summer camps, and it's been in a few other places, but mostly the summer camps.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens when kids start going back to school, which is happening any day now?

SILBERNER: Right. And everybody's best guess is that it's going to come back to school with kids, but nobody really knows. The theory, of course, is that viruses spread better when people are close to one another and you get that in school. Flu viruses spread better in cooler, dryer air. You get that as the fall comes on. But I've got to tell you, if you talk to two virologists, you'll hear three times that the flu is unpredictable.

INSKEEP: They don't know that there's going to be a massive pandemic or do they assume that much? That it's going to be massive, we just don't know exactly how.

SILBERNER: It looks like it, because it's been so big in the southern hemisphere. It looks like a bad flu season.

INSKEEP: Well, how soon will we see a vaccine from those 2,800 people rolling up their sleeves and getting tested here?

SILBERNER: Pretty soon, when you consider how long it usually takes to do these things. The secretary of Health and Human Services has been saying mid-October for commercial availability. The results from the tests going on now should be available in about five weeks. One of the things they're looking at is are you going to need one dose or two? And that's important because there may not be enough to go around, at least at first.

And years ago the government convinced vaccine manufacturers they really needed to step up their production capabilities. And that's when people were worried about - remember avian flu or bird flu?

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

SILBERNER: That concern led to an incredibly build up of what manufacturers can do. And we're taking advantage of that now, because there probably will be enough around.

INSKEEP: Do they still make the vaccine by injecting you with basically a weaker version of the same virus? Is that what this vaccine is?

SILBERNER: Well, no. the way they make most seasonal flu vaccines is they take the new virus - because every year, seasonal flu switches a little and they pick new virus strains to work with. They combine them with another vaccine. It's actually pretty cool and a little complicated. This combination vaccine produces some of the proteins of the virus that you're worried about. And then they kill the virus and they take off those proteins and that becomes the vaccine.

INSKEEP: Is it safe?

SILBERNER: Well, it looks like it. The seasonal flu vaccine, you know, we're talking billions of doses of these various flus over the years - these various vaccines - and they've all been safe. So the thought is there's no reason to think that this one will be any different.

INSKEEP: Although manufacturing this, if I'm not mistaken, is a slow process. Is there going to be vaccine for 300 million Americans or a desire to get that many Americans to take the vaccine?

SILBERNER: Well, they prioritized already. Let me take your first question first. Is there going to be enough? I think eventually there'll be enough. It looked a little grim in the beginning of the production process, because some of these viruses were growing slowly. Some of them seemed to be doing a bit of a better job here.

Who's going to get the vaccine? Well, there's some surprises there, because the government's come up with its list. And on the list are pregnant women. Not usually considered for, you know, for new things. But pregnant women are being disproportionately affected by this virus.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they're saying the risk of not taking the vaccine is greater than the risk of taking the vaccine?

SILBERNER: Right. And it comes in from this one statistic, which is that while 1 percent of the population are pregnant women, six percent of the deaths have been in pregnant women. So there's a real concern there.

There's not a concern for older people, which is unusual, because that's -seasonal flu usually gets older people first. But in this case it looks like they have their own immunity from having seen a similar virus back before 1957.

INSKEEP: Joanne, thanks very much.

SILBERNER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanne Silberner giving us the update on swine flu.

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Volunteers Line Up For Swine Flu Vaccine Test

Lorenzo Thornton i i

hide captionLorenzo Thornton volunteered to take part in early trials of the new H1N1 vaccine. He received the vaccine at the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development.

Joanne Silberner/NPR
Lorenzo Thornton

Lorenzo Thornton volunteered to take part in early trials of the new H1N1 vaccine. He received the vaccine at the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development.

Joanne Silberner/NPR

Researchers have begun testing a vaccine engineered to fight the new H1N1 swine flu that first appeared in the spring. The tests are being done quickly, in a race to have something available before a possible fall outbreak.

At the University of Maryland in Baltimore and seven other sites around the country, volunteers began receiving a new vaccine against H1N1 swine flu on Monday. They are the first volunteers in a government trial that will eventually include 2,800 people.

Landscaper Lorenzo Thornton, 48, is one of the volunteers. He says he is not the least bit worried about being in a vaccine trial. "I've got a pretty strong immune system," he says. Though Thornton will get paid for participating, he says he's not in it for the money.

"Whatever they can find out from me, if it gives me any kind of reaction, maybe it could help someone else," he says.

Thornton has to first sit through a 40-minute orientation to learn about the risks he might be taking. Dr. Wilbur Chen of the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development gives the talk. And last Friday, as soon as the vaccine arrived, Chen got a shot himself.

Chen tells the volunteers that the trials are moving fast because the virus itself is moving fast.

"It only took about a month for us to have it spread from Mexico to our Southern states. And then from that, only 10 days later did we start confirming these cases in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio, Texas," says Chen. "And at that time, that's when our nation's health and human services declared a public health emergency."

Chen also told the volunteers that they shouldn't expect to get the flu.

"The vaccine, you should know, is a killed virus, so you're not going to be able to get the actual flu from it, although you may get flu-like symptoms," Chen says.

Volunteers will be checked closely for any side effects. They'll also be monitored for Guillain-Barre syndrome, which was reported in people who received a swine flu vaccine 33 years ago. It's a rare syndrome usually triggered by a viral infection, and no one knows for sure if the vaccine is also a trigger.

Dr. Karen Kotloff is heading the University of Maryland trials, and her team is racing to test the vaccine's safety and effectiveness before a potential major outbreak of H1N1 in the fall. "Coming I think in September, there's going to be an increase, and I think it will become much steeper come November or December," Kotloff says.

If the vaccine turns out to be safe, government officials say they'll have it ready for distribution in mid-October. Kotloff is confident about the vaccine's safety because of the long safety record of seasonal flu vaccines.

"We have no scientific basis for thinking that this vaccine will behave any differently," says Kotloff. The vaccine is prepared and formulated like the seasonal influenza vaccine that many people take each year.

She says that at the University of Maryland, they'll give about 400 shots in the next week.

"Eight days from then, we'll have the earliest blood sample to see what a single dose does. Two weeks after that, we'll know what a single dose at the two strengths can do," she says.

In a matter of weeks, researchers will have more data about how many doses of the vaccine are needed to be effective. If people need two shots of the new H1N1 vaccine, this could prove a challenge if there's not much available this fall.

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