Russia begins clinical trials for bird flu vaccines

Russian scientists on Tuesday began a clinical trial of the country's first vaccines intended to protect humans against the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, researchers and officials said. The trial involving 120 adult volunteers testing two types of vaccine will end by mid-August, said Anatoly Zverev, the head of the Mechnikov Vaccine and Serum Institute, which is carrying out the tests.

Tests on animals had given reason to "express cautious optimism that the vaccine would prove to be efficient," said Anton Katlinsky, head of the Federal Research and Development Company Microgene, which developed the vaccines. Experts fear H5N1 will eventually mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, possibly sparking a pandemic. "New pandemics will surely happen and not necessarily from this particular strain, but we must be ready for all of them," Zverev said.

So far, the virus that has killed more than 120 people worldwide since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003 remains hard for people to catch. Most human cases are linked to contact with infected birds. Katlinsky said the vaccines to be tested have been developed from the H5N1 virus strain, recommended by the World Health Organization.

He added that if it mutates into another type, the vaccine can be quickly adjusted. Producing a full batch of 40 million doses of the medication requires 1 1/2 months, Katlinsky said. Zverev said the volunteers are mostly employees of his institute as well as blood donors whose health will be easy to monitor. Anatoly Ryzhov, one of the institute workers who were the first to be vaccinated Tuesday, said he hoped the vaccine would prove successful. Asked whether he was afraid to experiment with his body, Ryzhov said, "No, it's not scary at all what's scary is be talking to all of you journalists."

Russia recorded its first cases of bird flu in Siberia last year, and has registered no cases of human infection. Authorities warned that during the spring migration, the virus could again spread from Siberia and southern areas into Russia 's European regions, reports the AP.

N.U.