Finland To Offer Bird Flu Vaccines To At-Risk Groups In Possible World-First Move

Finland To Offer Bird Flu Vaccines To At-Risk Groups In Possible World-First Move

Finland may be about to become the first country in the world to start dishing out preventative bird flu vaccines to some citizens. It’s being reported that the first shipments of vaccine secured by the European Union (EU) will be heading there, so that those most at risk of exposure to the virus can be offered some protection.

Reuters reports that the EU is due to sign a contract with vaccine manufacturer CSL Seqirus to secure 665,000 doses of a preventative avian influenza vaccine on behalf of 15 nations within the EU and European Economic Area (EEA). Similar efforts are underway in the US, Canada, and UK, but with the EU’s deal slated for completion on June 11, 2024, it’s looking likely the first nation to begin its vaccination efforts will be Finland.

The Zoonotic Influenza Vaccine Seqirus, which was authorized for use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in October 2023, was developed against a strain of bird flu in the H5N8 classification.

This is slightly different from the bird flu that’s recently been hitting the headlines with outbreaks on dairy farms in several US states – that’s an H5N1 virus. However, since the vaccine’s main target is the hemagglutinin surface protein on the virus – the “H” part, which is common to both H5N8 and H5N1 – it’s hoped that it will still offer some protection against H5N1.

So far, three farm workers in the US are known to have contracted the virus after exposure to infected cows, and there’s no evidence of transmission between people. While the risk is generally considered low, those whose occupations bring them into close contact with animals will be the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” if this virus starts to make more frequent jumps to humans.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that anyone spending time around dairy cows or raw milk practice good hand hygiene and wear personal protective equipment, including gloves, respirators, and safety goggles. It’s hoped a vaccine, even against a slightly different avian flu virus, will offer another layer of protection.

No EU/EEA countries have yet reported a human case of H5N1. “The risk of zoonotic influenza transmission to the general public in EU/EEA countries is considered to be low,” said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in its weekly report for June 1-7.

That said, Finland saw a number of outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 in 2023, in wild birds and among mammals on a number of the country’s over 500 fur farms, which resulted in large-scale culling

Animals that are farmed for fur, like mink, are known to be susceptible to avian flu, but outbreaks on fur farms, as well as the ongoing situation with dairy cows in the US, are particularly concerning to epidemiologists as they raise the specter of sustained transmission between mammals, which itself increases the chance of a virus making the jump to humans.

“Last year the situation looked very alarming,” said Hanna Nohynek, chief physician with the Infectious Diseases Control and Vaccines Unit at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, according to Euractiv. “This year has been more calm, but we know from the US that the virus is still around, so we want to protect those who are working with animals that might be affected.”

To that end, STAT News reports that Finnish authorities are planning to start delivering doses to poultry farmers, fur farm workers, vets, and scientists studying the virus “as soon as the vaccines are in the country.”

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