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Viral Pandemic H5N1 flu threat: Baxter contaminates European labs by error

Influenza-Virus: Credit: NIAIDIt could be a Hollywood Worst Case Thriller, but it is real: According to the scientific network PROMED, Baxter International Inc. in Austria "unintentionally contaminated samples with the bird flu virus that were used in laboratories in 3 neighboring countries, raising concern about the potential spread of the deadly disease". As PROMED reports, the contamination has been discovered when ferrets at a laboratory in the Czech Republic died after being inoculated with vaccine made from the samples early this month. "The material came from Deerfield, Illinois-based Baxter, which reported the incident to the Austrian Ministry of Health, Sigrid Rosenberger, a ministry spokeswoman, said today in a telephone interview", the network-alert-system is quoting. "This was infected with a bird flu virus," Rosenberger said. "There were some people from the company who handled it." There are severe signs that the long expected pandemic avian influenza could be on its way to conquer the world - even without Baxter's error driven help. by Vlad Dan Georgescu and Marita Vollborn

First deaths in Asia concern little children, which from virological point of view is a rather new aspect, and could be the evidence for a new spread. While scientists expect this pandemic to happen in the near future, the new President should also stay alert: A coming influenza pandemic would deteriorate the global economy even without financial crisis, recession - or Baxter.

Evidence for the global threat comes from China, where a 2 year old girl has been confirmed to be infected with bird flu in the northern Shanxi Province, as government officials said last Saturday. The child was found ill on 7th of January in the central Hunan province - the little patient still is in critical condition. According to the test result of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the girl had been tested positive for the H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

On the other site of the globe, the Ministry of Health and Population of Egypt announced a new human case of avian influenza A(H5N1) virus infection last week, the case being a 21 month old girl Kerdasa District.

“Infection with the H5N1 avian influenza virus was diagnosed by PCR at the Egyptian Central Public Health Laboratory and subsequently confirmed by the U. S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3 (NAMRU-3) laboratories”, reports the special wire PROMED. According to PROMED, investigations into the source of her infection indicate a recent history of contact with sick and dead poultry - 23 similar cases in Egypt have been fatal up to date.

Old Europe as leading research power?

Given such facts, Mr. Obama should follow European research policy: European research on vaccine development for pandemic influenza has been financed since 2001 by the European Union. Early projects worked to develop an egg-free vaccine, which is faster and safer to produce, along with innovative application techniques. Research is now underway with the objectives of fighting the disease at the source (infected birds) and protecting human populations through pandemic influenza vaccines. Future EU research will improve vaccine efficiency by adding adjuvants, substances that boost the body’s immune response to vaccine antigen. Additionally, research teams are currently focused on developing a universal flu vaccine that could provide a lifetime of protection from influenza.

Latest surveillance data coming through the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) from virologists and clinicians indicates that the influenza A(H3N2) virus is the predominant strain in Europe so far this season (2008/2009). Based on the data published by ECDC the pharmaceutical company Roche confirms that the oral antiviral Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is fully active against influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B, which currently comprise 94 percent of circulating viruses in Europe this year. Tamiflu resistance reported in the 2008-2009 influenza seasons is confined to H1N1. No resistance has been seen with other circulating seasonal viruses - H3N2 and influenza B.

"Recent media reporting has elevated awareness of the H1N1 seasonal resistance seen this year in the United States and the Far East. However, in Europe the picture is different with H3N2 being the dominant strain so far. The circulating H3N2 viruses, which often cause a more severe illness than H1N1, are sensitive to oseltamivir, which means that oseltamivir will be active against the vast majority of influenza infections in Europe this season, if current trends continue," comments Prof Albert Osterhaus, Head of Virology, Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam. "It is important that doctors understand that oseltamivir remains an effective treatment for patients across Europe."

Flu alert for the new President

However, the situation in the United States is more alerting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new University of Colorado at Boulder study showed the resistance of the avian flu virus to a major class of antiviral drugs "is increasing through positive evolutionary selection, with researchers documenting the trend in more than 30 percent of the samples tested", as the scientists report. Even if the expected influenza pandemic did not start yet, there is no doubt about the comeback of the lethal virus: The first Pandemic Influenza occurred in three waves in the United States - exactly 90 years ago, between 1918 and 1919.

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