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U.S. government to pay for flu vaccine campaign

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government will pay for any vaccination program against the H1N1 swine flu, and may encourage schools to help vaccinate children, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Thursday.

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The government is also considering buying even more antiviral drugs, including more of GlaxoSmithKline’s inhaled drug Relenza and pediatric doses of Roche AG’s Tamiflu, officials told a swine flu “summit” at the National Institutes of Health.

Sebelius said plans were on track for a mid-October vaccination program, and she urged states and territories to get plans in place now. It will likely run alongside the annual seasonal flu vaccine campaign and may include schools and other non-traditional sites as vaccination centers.

“At mid-October we might have as much as 100 million doses of vaccine,” HHS vaccine expert Dr. Bruce Gellin told the meeting.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said clinical trials would likely begin in August to make sure the new H1N1 vaccines are safe, and to see which dose will be best. “All of this seems to be pretty much on schedule but when you are dealing with vaccines, anything can happen,” Fauci said in an interview.

The state health officials at the meeting said they hoped that years of planning for a pandemic were now starting to pay off, and President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment.

“We may end up averting a crisis. That’s our hope,” Obama told the summit by video link from the G8 meeting of industrial nations in Italy.

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The new virus, which has infected at least a million Americans and which the World Health Organization has designated a pandemic, has killed more than 400 people globally since it emerged in March. It looks mild now -- seasonal flu kills up to 500,000 people in a normal year -- but could change as it circulates.

PREPARING FOR FALL

“We have a little bit more than a month ... to get our acts together,” Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the meeting.

The federal government has 52 million treatment courses of Tamiflu and Relenza in its strategic national stockpile. Tamiflu, or oseltamivir, is made by Roche under license from Gilead Sciences while Relenza, or zanamivir, is made by Glaxo under license from Australia’s Biota Inc.

Dr. Robin Robinson of HHS said the department is also considering buying another tranche of drugs, including zanamivir and pediatric doses of Tamiflu.

A third drug, Biocryst Inc’s peramivir, is nearing final trials before approval, Robinson said. “That would be used for severely ill individuals in hospitals,” he said.

Having three different drugs would help address the issue of resistance. Some cases of the new H1N1 swine flu have been resistant to Tamiflu and that drug is now generally ineffective against the seasonal version of H1N1, a distant cousin of the pandemic strain.

Federal advisers plan a July 29 meeting to discuss who should get vaccinated. Companies making an H1N1 vaccine include Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis AG, Baxter International Inc, GlaxoSmithKline, Solvay and nasal spray maker MedImmune, part of AstraZeneca.

Editing by Doina Chiacu

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