Flu experts debate whether city should stockpile H5N1 vaccines

Flu experts are locked in a debate over whether Hong Kong should follow the lead of Europe and the US in stockpiling vaccines against the human H5N1 strain.

An expert committee under the Centre for Health Protection discussed the issue during a recent meeting but was unable to reach a consensus. It will be on the agenda at a meeting this month.

But a confluence of events - the death of a migrant worker in Beijing from the strain this week, the H5N1 poultry outbreak at a Yuen Long farm last month, and the detection of a fifth child with H9N2 flu in Hong Kong - could help sway opinion.

Chinese University professor of microbiology Paul Chan Kay-sheung said Hong Kong should consider 'more seriously whether we should stockpile pre-pandemic vaccines, which would be used on essential health-care workers'.

'Once the virus can spread effectively among humans ... it will leave us only a few weeks to do something, [but without vaccines] for a few weeks, we can do nothing,' he said. 'So this is the time for us to do something by stockpiling the vaccines and perhaps vaccinating people at risk.'

Professor Chan said the vaccines had been licensed for use in humans by the European Commission and had been stockpiled by Britain, Sweden and Germany. Taiwan and Singapore also have stockpiles.

Internationally renowned bird flu expert Malik Peiris, of the University of Hong Kong, said several H5N1 vaccines were 'theoretically available' or in the process of being licensed by different countries. He said he would not give his position on stockpiling until the meeting of the expert panel.

Infectious disease specialist Lo Wing-lok said the Centre for Health Protection panel was still considering 'the evidence on whether, at the end of the day, it will be beneficial' to stockpile.

Meanwhile, the centre said the H9N2 virus that infected a two-month-old Shenzhen girl in Hong Kong last month was 'entirely of avian origin' and 'highly similar' to the strain isolated from a nine-month-old girl in 2007, based on genetic sequencing.

The baby, who was born in Hong Kong, was in a stable condition last night at Tuen Mun Hospital, where she was being treated for another illness. Her family lives near a restaurant that raises poultry in Shenzhen.