Scientists are currently creating a new “vaccine” of sorts against the H5N1 (“bird flu”) strain of Influenza A. We’re all familiar with how contagious the flu virus is, and we’ve been lucky that the H5N1 strain isn’t passed from human to human… yet. More than half the reported cases of H5N1 which have been found in humans resulted in death, so the possibility of it mutating into a form which is readily transmitted in humans is rather… scary. So what kind of vaccine will help prevent this new bug from wreaking havoc in human hosts? Heh, researchers are turning to a relatively old one – the smallpox vaccine. The nature of the smallpox vaccine makes it simple to produce and stable over a period of time. Therefore, stockpiling the vaccine in anticipation of an outbreak may be a useful tool in combatting this looming threat. Furthermore, the vaccine is cheap to produce and can consequently be distributed to poorer, developing countries attempting to ward off the bird flu themselves.
So how does a vaccine for smallpox protect against bird flu? Well, it doesn’t directly. The smallpox vaccine is being reenginerred to incorporate five major protein components of the Vietnamese strain of H5N1. Studies in mice have shown that samples inoculated with this smallpox-H5N1 hybrid vaccine have significantly higher levels of antibodies compared to the current bird flu vaccine (Sanofi-Aventis). In addition, they were also able to survive exposure to the Indonesian strain of bird flu. Continued experimentation may one day make this new vaccine the routine protocol for preventing bird flu.