U.S. government purchases $100 million stockpile of avian flu vaccine

WASHINGTON - The federal government is buying $100 million of avian flu vaccine in the first step toward building a stockpile that would protect 20 million Americans from an outbreak of the deadly virus.

Coming weeks after government scientists tentatively concluded that the vaccine works, yesterday's announcement reflects the urgency with which federal health officials are preparing for avian flu's likely spread, a spokesman said.

The drug hasn't been approved by federal regulators. But Bill Hall, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the danger is too great to wait until testing finishes. "It's an insurance policy," he said.

Because the proper dosage is being determined, officials don't know how many people could be vaccinated with the purchase. It could be from 2 million to 20 million people, Hall said.

Avian flu appeared in China nine years ago. Since then, it has spread across Asia and into Russia, killing more than 50 people. Migratory birds are believed to be carrying it toward Europe. Many experts suspect a widespread outbreak is inevitable.

Chickens and ducks carry the virus. Humans have acquired it by cleaning the poultry.

Although the virus is not capable of being easily passed from person to person, public health officials worry that it will be, quickly spreading the disease.

Should a pandemic develop, it's not certain the vaccine would provide full protection. The virus could have mutated by then.

But federal health officials hope the strains will be similar enough that the vaccine will provide some help, Hall said.

The federal government had previously bought the vaccine for clinical testing, Hall said. The new purchase, from French manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur, marks the first contract to develop a stockpile for use in event of an outbreak, Hall said.

In addition, the government is buying $2.8 million of medication to treat avian flu. The drug, Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline, could treat 84,300 people.