Chinese scientists have independently developed a vaccine for the H7N9 bird flu virus - a bug that has killed at least 45 people since March - and could be ready to launch it in six months, a research team spokesman said.
The vaccine was the first developed for an influenza by Chinese scientists, and was part of contributions by laboratories worldwide to control the H7N9 virus, said a statement from the vaccine research centre at Zhejiang University's First Affiliated Hospital. Research and development work ended last Monday.
Dr Yao Hangping, a spokesman for the team, which is part of a state-run laboratory at the hospital, told the South China Morning Post that researchers had spent six months isolating virus strains for the vaccine.
"We were able to develop the virus strain fast," Yao said. "Our researchers spent just two days finishing the virus verification and sent it to our gene bank for further research and development. As a result, we completed all necessary vaccine safety assessments and experiments on October 21."
Zhejiang province had the most H7N9 cases, with 48 out of the mainland's 136 confirmed cases occurring there, which provided researchers with ample samples to study, he said.
"Before the vaccine can be put on the production line, manufacturers need to spend at least half a year going through several processes, including pilot tests, human trials, and drug approvals," Yao said.
He said two manufacturers had shown interest in producing the vaccine - the Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Tianyuan Bio-Pharmaceutical and the Beijing Biological Products Institute.
The vaccine was jointly developed by the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University's School of Medicine, the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Food and Drug Control, and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.
The H7N9 bird flu virus first emerged in Shanghai in February. Guangdong confirmed its first case in August.
Hong Kong University microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung expressed concerns over whether the vaccine would be able to resist the virus, since it was evolving fast and spreading faster than all other known strains.
But Yao said: "Our experimental results show us that like other flu vaccines, the vaccine we developed is able to deal with current strains of the virus even though it has kept changing. Our research team is continually monitoring and studying all known strains of the virus."
Yao said his team was sponsored by the Ministry of Education and that the Collaborative Innovative Research Centre recruited experts for the project from infectious diseases institutes around the country.
"Unlike other virus laboratories that need further help from the CDC and World Health Organisation to confirm and identify virus strains, we have our own medical centre, hospital, clinics and all related experts to provide comprehensive backup," he said.
Researchers elsewhere have also begun work on a vaccine, including in the United States, Canada and Taiwan.
View H7N9 map in a larger map
Click on each balloon for more information on individual patients infected: blue, patients infected with the H7N9 virus under treatment; red, those infected with H7N9 who have died; yellow, those who have fully recovered; and pink, those infected other types of the Influenza A virus, including H1N1.