Researchers at St. Louis University are recruiting volunteers to test a new vaccination for avian influenza.
The vaccination targets the H7N9 strain, which has caused at least 600 deaths since it first surfaced in China in 2013. The National Institutes of Health has identified the strain as one that could cause a global pandemic and is now preparing for an outbreak before it happens.
Five separate outbreaks of H7N9 avian influenza have surfaced over the past six years, sickening more than 1,500 people.
Nearly 40 percent of patients have died.
According to the World Health Organization, all reported cases have occurred in China or involved people who had recently traveled there.
The H7N9 virus passes from domestic poultry to humans, said Sharon Frey, director of the SLU Center for Vaccine Development.
“The people who work in the poultry industry are surrounded by these birds, very close to them,” Frey said.
China instituted a policy of vaccinating chickens against H7N9 in 2017, which reportedly led to a 93 percent decline in poultry infection.
Given the high mortality rate of the strain, however, public health officials in the U.S. remain concerned about the possibility of a global pandemic.
The strain rarely passes from person to person, but Frey said that could change if the virus mutates.
“The fear is that this strain may mutate enough that it could be transmitted from human to human,” Frey said. “That could cause a pandemic, which would most likely be very severe.”
The ability of flu viruses to mutate also makes it especially challenging and time-consuming to develop human vaccinations to combat them.
SLU is part of a network of seven research sites that will test the vaccination against H7N9.
Frey said they are looking to recruit up to 80 healthy volunteers that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the greater St. Louis population.
Paid volunteers will receive two doses of the vaccine 21 days apart.
Researchers will then collect blood samples from each participant to assess their body’s immune response and test whether antibodies in their blood can effectively fight the virus.
The ultimate goal, Frey said, is to be prepared long before a virus outbreak surfaces.
“When there’s a severe pandemic, you have to be ready to have vaccine to distribute as quickly as possible,” she said.
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