Labs Report Flu Vaccine Breakthroughs

Two U.S. laboratories have produced a new type of vaccine against the Asian bird flu virus. Health experts worry the virus might touch off the next flu pandemic.

Both vaccines provide protection against the bird virus in mice. One protects chickens, too. They're made from a gene for the bird virus' outer coat, attached to a disabled common cold virus. One report appears in The Lancet. The other is in the current Journal of Virology.

Unlike conventional flu vaccines, the experimental vaccines don't require eggs to manufacture. They also provide strong immunity against different strains of the bird virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health says it's a promising development.

"This is, I think, interesting and important," Fauci said. "The proof of the pudding is going to be when you finally get this into humans and determine what the extent of the immune response will be."

Fauci predicts it will be at least a year before that can be known. — Richard Knox

New Relief for Chronic Heart Pain

Jan. 31, 2006 — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a drug for heart pain that is unlike any other cardiac drug on the market.

Currently available drugs for angina, or heart pain, work by lowering blood pressure, slowing down the heart rate, or dilating blood vessels.

The FDA says the way the new drug works isn't completely understood. But in clinical trials, Ranexa reduced the number of angina attacks in people with the condition.

Ranexa should only be used by people with chronic angina who haven't found relief with other drugs, the FDA said.

A spokesman for the manufacturer, CV Therapeutics, says the drug will be available in mid-March, and that a price has not yet been set. Ranexa is now being tested for its ability to improve survival after a heart attack. — Joanne Silberner

CDC: No Flu Vaccine Stockpile Until 2010

Jan. 31, 2006 — Government officials say it will take several years to stockpile all the vaccines and drugs that would be needed to deal with a flu pandemic.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate committee that her agency can't predict whether there'll be a flu pandemic.

She said the government, however, does have the ability to prepare for even a worst-case scenario. But Gerberding estimated it would take four or five years to stockpile the needed vaccines and drugs.

"We are not going to have a rapidly available supply for several years, even if we do everything we want to do with the $7.1 billion."

The $7.1 billion is the amount the White House says is needed to prepare the country for a pandemic. But Congress has given only about half that.

In other testimony, a drug company official told senators that the government has just doubled its order of a key anti-viral drug. — Joseph Shapiro

FDA Approves Insulin Inhaler

Jan. 30, 2006 — People who need insulin now have an alternative to injections: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an inhalable form of insulin.

According to the FDA, nearly 5 million Americans rely on injections of insulin. The newly approved product is a powdered form of insulin that can be loaded into a specially designed inhaler and breathed in through the mouth. It can be used for both kinds of diabetes, type 1 and type 2.

Not everyone can use it; the FDA doesn't recommend its use for smokers or people with breathing problems like asthma. Patients will still have to monitor their blood sugar, since like any insulin, a little too much can drive blood sugar too low. Some people who used the product in clinical trials reported coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat or dry mouths. — Joanne Silberner

White House Defends Medicare Rx Program

Jan. 30, 2006 — The Bush administration is continuing to defend the new Medicare prescription drug program as rollout problems continue.

At his regular briefing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan brushed off a question about low-income Medicare beneficiaries who are paying more under the new program than they were before Jan. 1.

"The neediest seniors and people with disabilities are fully covered under Medicare and getting their prescription drug coverage free of charge," McClellan said.

They may be getting their coverage free, but many are paying more for individual drugs. And a new report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services finds that nearly a third of low-income patients who were randomly assigned coverage are in a plan that covers less than 85 percent of the most commonly used medications. Low-income patients can switch plans, but many who have subsequently have gotten lost in the system. — Julie Rovner, NPR

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