The H7N9 situation has quieted down since the early days of the outbreak. China switched from daily to weekly updates, and the number of new cases plateaued after live poultry markets were closed. Yet behind the scenes the U.S., China and others are continuing to ready defenses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Thomas Frieden is overseeing a multi-pronged approach to prepare the U.S. for the virus. Development of a vaccine is central to the plan. After beginning work on a vaccine with Novartis ($NVS) and others last month, CDC now aims to have a product in clinical trials this summer, Frieden told Reuters. The timeline is dependent on how successful CDC is in its efforts to shave weeks off earlier pandemic vaccine programs. Medicago claimed to be ahead of the field this week, having used its plant-based system to bring an H7N9 candidate to the cusp of immunogenicity studies in animal models.
A similar focus on time is being applied to detection of H7N9 in the U.S. Having developed H7N9 tests, the CDC has begun distributing the kits to states. Use of the kits should limit the time between H7N9 arriving in the U.S. and the CDC becoming aware of its presence. This will allow for a speedy response to the virus. Similarly, the CDC has people in Cambodia, China, Laos and Vietnam to keep tabs on the virus in Asia. The Asian-based staff is part of a 193-person-strong emergency team at the CDC.
All this activity is happening because of a virus that is currently showing few signs of causing the long-feared pandemic flu. "At this point, there is no good evidence that this particular virus will be the next pandemic strain," Mount Sinai Medical Center microbiology chair Peter Palese said. The CDC director also downplayed the immediate threat posed by H7N9 but warned the outbreak will escalate if the virus goes beyond poultry-to-human transmission. "All it takes is a bit of mutation for it to be able to go person-to-person. I cannot say with certainty whether that will happen tomorrow, within 10 years or never," he said.