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CDC Races to Create a Vaccine for China's Latest Bird Flu Strain

A technician deals with test reagents for H7N9 bird flu virus at the Quzhou
Center for Disease Control (CDC) on April 4, 2013 in Quzhou, China
A technician deals with test reagents for H7N9 bird flu virus at the Quzhou Center for Disease Control (CDC) on April 4, 2013 in Quzhou, China Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Within a week, a special package, shipped in dry ice, is due to arrive at the offices of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta: a sample of the H7N9 “bird flu,” sent from China. The CDC scientists in the Influenza Division are eager to receive it. Even before then, though, the CDC has launched an ambitious effort to develop a vaccine for the H7N9 virus—made possible by new genomics technology and by notable openness on the part of Chinese health authorities in sharing virus details with international health organizations.

To date, nine people have died from the bird flu in eastern China. The first fatality, an 87-year-old man in Shanghai, fell ill on Feb. 14 and passed away within three weeks. By late March, Chinese health authorities had isolated the H7N9 virus, which has spread without symptoms among Chinese poultry, and sent samples to China’s Center for Disease Control in Beijing. Using technology unavailable a decade ago, when the deadly SARS virus struck, China’s CDC quickly sequenced the whole genomic code of the H7N9 virus—then submitted that information to GISAID, a publicly available international database for influenza researchers.