Akzo Nobel intends to start clinical trials next year of a human vaccine against the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, considered a likely candidate to cause the next flu pandemic.

The news follows a report of a case of avian influenza affecting poultry in Greece. If confirmed, this will be the first time that the disease has been encountered among birds in the European Union. Sixty people around the world have already died after contracting avian influenza from birds. If the virus mutates sufficiently to allow human-to-human transmission, the resulting pandemic could cause millions of deaths around the globe, according to the World Health Organisation.

"The current situation in Europe highlights the urgent need for a human vaccine against this potentially lethal infection," said Toon Wilderbeek, head of pharma at Akzo.

Akzo's vaccine has sprung out of the work carried out by the company's veterinary business, Intervet, which already sells a bird flu vaccine. Development of the human version is being orchestrated by Nobilon, Akzo's vaccine subsidiary that was formed in 2003. The unit has already been granted approval to start making clinical batches of the vaccine, and crucially uses a cell culture based production system that should allow vaccine to be made more quickly than with traditional methods using embryonated chicken eggs.

"Once Nobilon's H5N1 vaccine has been approved, the company's cell culture production could be used to mass produce vaccines immediately," said the firm in a statement. Last week, the European Medicines Agency announced a new fast-track procedure to make pandemic flu vaccines available as quickly as possible by approving core portions of the dossier even before the strain causing the outbreak has been identified [[14/10/05b]].

Recent experience also shows that there can be financial rewards for developing critical public health medicines even before approval is granted. In September, Sanofi Pasteur received a $100 million dollar grant to supply an H5N1 vaccine that is still in clinical testing [[16/09/05a]].