News - Blood of bird flu victims to create vaccine
HEALTH officials have drawn up a radical plan to create a "makeshift vaccine" from the blood of bird flu survivors if Britain is hit by a pandemic.
The scheme is being examined as a vital back-up to the government stockpiles of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu amid fears the flu virus may develop resistance to the drug.
It will also buy the public time while scientists work to create a full vaccine against the flu virus, which is expected to take more than six months after a pandemic strain first emerges.
Details of the proposals emerged following reports that the bird flu virus ravaging Turkey is showing signs of mutation.
Health experts fear that, if the bird flu virus mutates and combines with a human flu virus, it could form a new strain that would spread uncontrollably from person to person around the world and cause up to 50,000 deaths in Scotland.
Under the new plans, patients who survive the infection will be asked to donate blood from which antibodies against the flu virus can be harvested, purified and pooled.
The resulting serum would then be injected into key workers and members of the public to help give them short-term protection from the virus until they could be given a proper vaccine.
Doctors also hope they will be able to use the jabs, known as passive immunisation, to treat patients suffering from the early stages of the disease.
The scheme is outlined in a report on the government's influenza pandemic contingency plans by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.
Ministers at the Department of Health are now examining the report before it goes before MPs at Westminster.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal the Department of Health is already looking at ways to introduce emergency powers in the event of a pandemic outbreak that will overturn strict rules governing the use of blood products.
Pooling blood serum and injecting it into patients is currently banned under regulations designed to protect the public from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
But officials are carrying out risk assessments of the potential dangers of vCJD versus the potential life-saving benefits of passive immunisation.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The department is aware of the issue and we are looking to see if there is some way of overcoming the CJD regulations.
"There has been no decision made yet, but the report is being considered by the department before it goes before parliament."
The UK is stockpiling 14.9 million courses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, enough to offer protection to more than a quarter of the population.
Frontline health workers, police and relatives of flu patients would also be among the first to be given the drug.
But last month doctors in Asia warned that the virus was beginning to show signs of resistance.
In the UK, medics have now called for the government to use passive immunisation to supplement the Tamiflu stocks.
The technique is far faster than that needed to produce a full vaccine, taking weeks rather than months, as it essentially borrows immunity from a patient who has already survived an infection.
Antibodies from survivors from outside of the UK would also be imported under the plans being considered as initial survivors of the virus are likely to be from the country where the pandemic strain first appeared.
Once survivors in the UK begin to emerge, the Blood Transfusion Service will be asked to collect, purify and compile serum. Experts believe one pint of blood from a survivor could confer temporary immunity to several other patients.
Last night health officials in Scotland said the measure would be a useful tool to fight a flu pandemic should it hit this country.
Dr Jim McMenamin, from Health Protection Scotland, said: "It could particularly be used by the NHS as a therapy to stop people acquiring an infection, but it could also be used to treat patients who are already suffering from the early stages of infection.
"But it is difficult to say exactly how effective passive immunisation would be until we know how many people we can harvest blood from."
Professor Ian Jones, director of molecular virology at Reading University, said: "In the early stages of an epidemic, the number of people at risk will far outweigh the number of individuals infected.
"Passive immunisation is certainly worth considering, though, as it would provide some later protection."
Fears that a flu pandemic strain will soon emerge have been fuelled in recent weeks by the rapid spread of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Turkey.
Three children from one family have already died of the lethal animal virus, which is caught by humans from close contact with poultry, and another 15 people have been infected in the country.
Officials at the World Health Organisation have also confirmed that the global death toll from the virus has risen to 80, with more than 162 infected since 2003.
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