US government inks a deal with Moderna to make pandemic flu vaccine

The US Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday a contract with Moderna to develop an mRNA vaccine that targets pandemic flu, in case the shot becomes necessary with the latest outbreak of bird flu.

“This is an important step in our nation’s pandemic influenza preparedness and response capability as we look to add this additional platform to our existing portfolio of approved pandemic influenza vaccines,” Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response with HHS, said at a news conference.

The government has 4.8 million doses of an H5 vaccine with a traditional platform under production, O’Connell said. The vaccine is tailored to the currently circulating strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus and should come off the finishing line starting in the middle of this month — ahead of schedule, she said.

The new $176 million contract with Moderna will help the government stay “nimble” in case it needs to act quickly against any kind of circulating strains of a pandemic flu virus, officials said.

The mRNA vaccines wouldn’t be available any time soon, O’Connell said. Moderna has a vaccine candidate in early stage testing, and results should be available in the coming weeks, but late-stage testing of its vaccine wouldn’t start until 2025.

If something changes with the current H5N1 bird flu outbreak — for instance, if there is human-to-human transmission or if the severity of cases gets worse — there are options to “accelerate the timeline,” O’Connell said.

However, such a vaccine may not be necessary.

“The risk to the general population right now remains low and CDC’s assessment of that has not changed,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

H5N1 bird flu has been identified in dairy cows in 12 states, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Three farm workers in the US who worked with infected cattle have tested positive for bird flu.

Daskalakis said that even if a vaccine were available, the CDC isn’t entirely sure that vaccination is the best approach to protect farm workers right now, given that uptake might be limited, the virus hasn’t spread widely and illnesses haven’t been severe.

Biosecurity safety measures that many farms already have in place have been essential to keep the virus from spreading, said Eric Deeble, acting senior adviser for H5N1 response at the US Department of Agriculture, but the country needs to be prepared for anything.

“We do know that the vast majority of farms practice biosecurity and that includes dairy farms,” Deeble said at Tuesday’s news conference. “But this is a new and emerging disease that calls for a different set of biosecurity practices or enhancements of specific ones.”

More than 780 people have been monitored as a result of their exposure to infected cows, and at least 53 have been tested, the CDC said.

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