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Brussels, 11 September 2007

Vaccine against avian influenza shows promise in clinical trials

Preliminary results of the first clinical trial of a novel avian H7N1 influenza ("bird flu") vaccine have shown that it is safe and well tolerated in healthy volunteers. The vaccine was developed, from the design of the vaccine virus to the completion of this first clinical trial, by a team of European scientists and co-funded by the EU Research Framework Programme. The European Commission also announced today the results of its latest call for proposals for new influenza research projects: With more than € 27 million for 11 new collaborative projects the Commission continues its longstanding support for innovative scientific solutions in the fight against this deadly disease.

"By working together, we can achieve so much," said European Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik. "This project is just one example of how a European cooperation can lead to concrete results in areas that really matter to Europeans."

Influenza is a major threat to human as well as animal health. While concerns currently focus mainly on the danger of an outbreak of "pandemic" influenza that would rapidly spread around the world and kill millions of people, it is frequently forgotten that even during a "regular" influenza season, the disease is responsible for as many as 300 000 human deaths worldwide. In addition, influenza in domestic birds causes huge economic losses, and directly affects food security and the livelihood of rural areas in developing countries.

The FLUPAN project, supported by €2.1 million from the EU's 5th Research Framework Programme, brought together research teams from the UK, Italy, Norway and France to develop the first ever human candidate vaccine against the potentially deadly avian influenza H7N1 subtype. This virus differs from the H5N1 subtype that is currently circulating in Asia, which has caused a number of human infections and deaths. H7N1 has, however, caused lethal poultry outbreaks in Europe in the past and also has the potential to infect and spread among humans. Because the original H7N1 virus is considered too dangerous for vaccine manufacturers to work with, it was modified to make it safe, using a process called "reverse genetics". The vaccine is produced in a cell line rather than the traditionally used eggs. Cell culture is an alternative technology which could complement current egg-based vaccine production capacity in case of pandemic influenza. The results of the recently completed clinical trial showed that the vaccine was well tolerated and did not cause any serious side effects in the volunteers. The vaccine was adjuvanted (to increase the immune response) in some volunteers and elicited immune responses consistent with those of other alum-adjuvanted avian influenza vaccines (H5N1) at the doses tested. Future studies with the addition of a more potent adjuvant may increase the level of protection.

The Commission also announced today the results of its most recent selection of new influenza research projects: Following a thorough review by independent experts of 44 influenza projects submitted to its recent call for proposals (the first in the 7th Research Framework Programme that started this year) the Commission will initiate contract negotiations with the top 11 projects, which it plans to support with more than € 27 million. The research teams tackle a number of important questions such as the development of sophisticated new diagnostic methods, the search for innovative drug targets, modelling the spread of a possible pandemic and the effects of preventive measures, and the development of an easy to administer novel vaccine via nasal spray. Several of the selected consortia also include research institutions from the affected regions in Asia.

The Commission has a long track-record of supporting top-notch influenza research projects and considers innovative science-based solutions to this potential health threat an important component of its overall response to avian and human influenza. The selection of these latest successful projects brings the total Commission funding for influenza research to well over €90 million since 2001.
Details and results of 38 influenza research projects who have received EU support prior to the current round of funding, i.e. up to now, can be found in a recently published report:

For more information on the adopted projects, please see MEMO/07/348

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