Moderna has been given $176 million to expedite the development of a vaccine for pandemic bird flu amid increasing concerns

Moderna will receive $176 million to develop a pandemic flu vaccine for humans following a significant outbreak of bird flu among dairy cows nationwide, federal officials announced on Tuesday.

“We have applied lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to better prepare for future public health emergencies,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in Tuesday’s announcement. “As part of this effort, we are advancing new vaccines and tools to combat influenza and enhance our readiness for pandemics.”

The federal funding will support the late-stage development of an mRNA-based influenza vaccine, leveraging technology similar to that used in the COVID-19 vaccine, and aims to expedite responses to future public health threats, Moderna confirmed on Tuesday. The company has already initiated vaccine development, with plans to advance to a late-stage trial next year pending positive early results.

The bird flu, specifically the H5N1 strain of influenza, is highly contagious among birds and has now affected dairy cows in a multistate outbreak first reported in late March, according to the CDC. This marks the first time bird flu viruses have been detected in cows.

As per the latest CDC update, bird flu outbreaks have been reported in 12 states, affecting a total of 136 cattle herds. Three cases of bird flu transmission to humans have been documented since the outbreak began.

While the CDC asserts that the “current risk to the general public from bird flu viruses is low,” the geographical spread of the infection among dairy cows could potentially increase opportunities for human exposure to these viruses. Transmission of the virus between mammals is believed to be uncommon.

According to the CDC, mammals can contract the illness by consuming infected birds, poultry, or other animals, or by being exposed to environments contaminated with the virus.

The federal funding for the vaccine is being provided through HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which focuses on developing countermeasures for public health threats. According to the HHS announcement, the funding will also support a pricing agreement aimed at ensuring continued equitable access to vaccines.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel highlighted on Tuesday that mRNA technology, used in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, offers advantages in effectiveness, speed of development, and scalability and reliability of production.

Moderna began collecting safety and other data on the vaccine in healthy adults aged 18 and older in 2023. Results are anticipated in 2024 and will guide plans for Phase 3 development, the company added.

Federal officials emphasized that the adoption of this vaccine technology enables a more agile response to potential new threats.

“Integrating this technology into our pandemic flu preparedness strengthens our ability to respond swiftly to current strains and their potential mutations,” stated Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell.

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