Australia considering vaccination of its entire population of 20 million people against bird flu if trials of a human vaccine are successful, the health minister said.
Health Minister Tony Abbott said the government was working very closely with pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd. to develop a human vaccine for the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus that has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia.
"If the live trials currently taking place look promising ... we will consider whether we need to build up a supply of this (drug), such that if necessary we can vaccinate the whole population," Abbott told the SBS television network's Insight current affairs program.
Most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could mutate and become transmissible between humans, sparking a global pandemic.
Australia's health department has estimated that as many as 13,000 people could die in Australia if a pandemic were to occur, with a further 58,000 people hospitalized, Abbott said.
There is currently no human vaccine for bird flu but some scientists believe an anti-flu drug, Tamiflu, may help humans resist the disease.
Australia has stockpiled 3.9 million doses of Tamiflu, but Abbott has said that medication would most likely be given to medical staff and other essential service workers.
"In the end, the best thing the Australian government can do is ensure that if there is a pandemic outbreak, we are as well prepared as possible domestically to deal with it," Abbott told SBS.
Abbott said the vaccine trials were expected to be completed by the end of the year and the government would then decide whether to "produce a very large quantity of this candidate vaccine."
Meanwhile, the Australian division of GlaxoSmithKline has said it will start a new manufacturing line at its plant in the southern state of Victoria to boost production of its anti-flu drug, Relenza, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Calls to GlaxoSmithKline's Australian offices were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Ian Barr, a World Health Organization official at the Center for Influenza in Melbourne, applauded the move and said he would like to see more anti-flu drugs produced.
"It's always an issue of supply and demand with these companies that if the demand is there then usually they will build the supply to meet that demand," he told ABC radio. "However it does take a long time to actually get a facility up to speed for producing any drug, much less a complicated drug like Relenza," reports the AP.