Evidently the U.S. government is taking the threat of a global bird flu pandemic very seriously, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded five contracts collectively worth as much as $25.36 billion for medical countermeasures to the H5N1 avian influenza virus.
There is ample reason to take the threat of an H5N1 bird flu pandemic seriously, too. Over the last decade there have been 608 confirmed cases of H5N1 in humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Of those, 359 died; that's nearly a 70 percent mortality rate.
Of those confirmed cases of H5N1 and their resulting deaths, most have been in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Egypt. No cases have been reported in the U.S. -- yet.
To keep any potential H5N1 bird flu pandemic in check, HHS officials on 4 Sept. awarded contracts potentially worth $9 billion to Novartis Vaccines and Diagonostics Inc. in Boston; $8.2 billion to MedImmune LLC in Gaithersburg, Md.; $4.7 billion to Sanofi Pasteur Inc. in Swiftwater, Pa.; $2 billion to GlaxoSmithKline LLC in Philadelphia; and $1.5 billion to CSL Biotherapies Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa.
All contract awards are the maximum amount possible. The contract duration is three years with options for two additional years. Awarding the contracts was the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
The companies will provide the U.S. government with vaccines, support, and medical storage not only for pre-pandemic medicine to help prevent the spread of the H5N1 virus, but also for medicines to treat the virus after it is contracted to alleviate symptoms and prevent deaths.
U.S. health officials are determined to blunt the effects of any potential H5N1 avian influenza pandemic, which could overload hospitals, threaten children and the elderly the most, and could threaten the working of the military and government agencies if large numbers of employees were to be incapacitated by the virus.