LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Even in a best case scenario making a vaccine against the brand new swine flu virus in just a few months is a tall order. And now, the World Health Organization says the strain of virus being used to make the new pandemic vaccine is growing only 25 to 50 percent as fast as expected. NPR's Richard Knox reports on the efforts that are underway to prepare vaccine that can be injected into hundreds of millions of arms this coming flu season.
Unidentified Woman: Everyone should've gotten an agenda last night and if there's no…
RICHARD KNOX: Flu season is maybe four months away, but meetings like this one are already happening all over the country.
Ms. BARBARA FERRER (Executive director, Boston Public Health Commission): And so should we need to do mass vaccinations we will have all the school nurses who already have been trained to do vaccinations.
KNOX: Barbara Ferrer is head of Boston's Public Health Commission. She says the new H1N1 swine flu virus may well come back early this fall, before public health officials have a vaccine against it. When it first hit last spring, it made about one in ten Boston schoolchildren sick.
Ms. FERRER: If it's anything like what we saw in the spring, school-aged children will remain very vulnerable to H1N1 infections, and we'll not have a vaccine that will be rolling out early on in the season to protect them from that strain of influenza.
KNOX: But swine flu won't be the only flu around this fall. There's seasonal flu too. So Ferrer and her staff are trying to figure out how they're going to run two different flu vaccination campaigns this fall and winter.
Ms. FERRER: There are two separate vaccines. One would be available early on and will protect against some flu viruses. Another one may not be available until later in the year. And will protect against another set of viruses. This will be a complicated fall.
KNOX: Federal officials are trying to accelerate the production of swine flu vaccine. So at least some will be available in September. Meanwhile Ferrer says she is worried, she'll have a hard time persuading people to get seasonal flu vaccine because people may not be interested in a shot that doesn't protect them against the more immediate swine flu threat. She isn't the only one who thinks this will be complicated.
Dr. BRUCE GELLIN (Director, National Vaccine Program Office): Doing these two things simultaneously is unprecedented. And trying to keep track of both and not being distracted by either is our challenge.
KNOX: Dr. Bruce Gellin heads the National Vaccine Program Office in the Department of Health and Human Services. He says the slow growing H1N1 strain already is a bump in the road that will have to be overcome. Flu vaccines are made by growing especially prepared strain of the virus in eggs. And the virus the government provided to vaccine manufactures as the seeds strain for the pandemic vaccine isn't multiplying as fast as seasonal flu virus when it's injected into eggs.
Dr. GELLIN: Manufacturers have been comparing this to the growth of the seasonal H1N1 virus. And compared to that, many of the manufacturers have reported that it's not growing as well, maybe about half as well, maybe a little bit better than that.
Ms. DORIS BUCHER (Researcher, New York Medical College): Fifty percent is the upper end. Some are getting only 25 percent growth.
KNOX: Doris Bucher is one of the researchers at New York Medical College who created the seeds strain. She was crushed, recently, when she learned it hasn't been growing well.
Ms. BUCHER: It was very disappointing. No one was more disappointed than I was when I heard that, you know, they just hadn't been able to push up the yield.
KNOX: Bucher says manufacturers are trying everything they can.
Ms. BUCHER: They could vary temperature. They could vary time of incubation. I mean, that's a sort of thing they do. But unfortunately today it hasn't been working.
KNOX: The implications are big. Unless manufacturers can get a faster growing seeds strain, the vaccine against the pandemic H1N1 virus will be made and delivered more slowly. Health officials also worry about making sure the vaccine is safe and effective. About 10,000 volunteers are lined up to test the new vaccine. Those studies will begin over the next several weeks. The studies will determine how effective the vaccine is at raising an immune response. But Bruce Gellin says they won't reveal rare but serious side effects.
Dr. GELLIN: With rare events, you may not be able to see them until you've had a significant number of people who have received a vaccine or a medical product.
KNOX: More than just the 10,000 volunteers. In 1976, a paralyzing disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome halted a vaccination campaign against a different swine flu. Later this year, once millions of people start getting the new vaccine, officials will be looking hard for any side effects that might crop up. They'll be hoping for no surprises and looking for them at the same time.
Dr. GELLIN: Particularly with influenza, we've learned to expect surprises. We're ready for surprises and have to be able to look for them, acknowledge them, and figure how best to deal with them.
KNOX: And apparently so are the rest of us.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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