Friday, March 31, 2006

Bird flu expected to hit West Coast by summer

Bird flu expected to hit West Coast by summer
By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California officials expect bird flu to arrive on the U.S. West Coast this summer in what could be the first sign in the United States of the deadly virus, which has already swept from Asia across Europe and down to Africa.

"The H5N1 virus in birds is expected in the next couple of months in the United States," California Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe told reporters on Thursday at a state bird flu pandemic preparedness meeting.

Officials said the virus was likely to be carried into either the east or west coast of the United States by migrating birds starting their journeys south, either from Alaska on the Pacific Flyway, or the Atlantic Flyway on the other side of North American continent.

They said some 60,000 birds, mostly waterfowl, would begin their migration south from Alaska in mid-August, working their way down through Oregon, Washington and into California.

Although both coasts have set up monitoring systems for any signs of the avian virus "we expect there will be access (to the United States) through Alaska rather than upstate New York," said Ryan Broddrick, director of the California Department of Fish and Game. He did not elaborate.

The H5N1 virus overwhelmingly infects birds but has sickened 186 people in eight countries and killed 105 of them. Experts believe it poses the greatest threat in recent years of a global flu pandemic that could kill millions, if it acquires the ability to pass easily from human to human.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt warned against panic when avian flu hits U.S. shores for the first time, saying it would not inevitably mean the start of a human pandemic.

"It is almost certain that a wild bird will find its way into the United States with H5N1 on board. That will not be a crisis," Leavitt told reporters in Los Angeles.

But he warned states to lay the groundwork for possible human to human transmission. "There is clearly a lot of buzz (but) I worry there is not enough busy-ness," he said.

Leavitt said research published on Wednesday finding that an experimental vaccine against bird flu in humans works only at very high doses was "not unexpected."

"We are working to develop adjuvant technology that will allow us to boost the effects of vaccine and we are optimistic that that can be part of the solution," he said.

GlaxoSmithKline on Thursday announced the start of human trials of two new bird flu vaccines using adjuvants -- additives that are put into vaccines that boost the immune system and make it respond more efficiently.

If the vaccines work they would be ready to manufacture by the end of the year, the company said.