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US Pays Moderna $176 Million to Develop Bird Flu Vaccine Amid Waves of Outbreaks

Moderna will employ the same mRNA vaccine technology that was pioneered to develop COVID-19 vaccines.

A technician tests milk samples for H5N1 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 14, 2024.

In the ongoing waves of bird flu outbreaks, with the virus spreading to more than 141 herds in 12 states, the risk of another full-blown pandemic like COVID-19 is becoming a distinct possibility. In preparation for just such a disaster, the U.S. government will pay pharmaceutical company Moderna $176 million to develop a vaccine that protects against the H5N1 virus. Moderna will employ the same mRNA vaccine technology that was pioneered to develop COVID-19 vaccines in 2020, as well as the booster shots that have followed.

Moderna is already in the early stages of testing its new mRNA vaccine, meaning that it will be receiving supplementary funds for that research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The award was made through an agency organization called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

“We have successfully taken lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and used them to better prepare for future public health crises. As part of that, we continue to develop new vaccines and other tools to help address influenza and bolster our pandemic response capabilities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Importantly, we are doing this work in partnership with some of the nation’s leading scientists and clinicians. The Biden-Harris Administration won’t stop until we have everything we need to prepare for pandemics and other public health emergencies that impact the American public.”

Because influenza strains are closely related to each other, the scientists can pivot from the avian flu to a different type of flu if a separate and more serious outbreak emerges. The current concern, however, is about the H5N1 virus. The strain has been virulent across U.S. dairy farms in 2024, even infecting three people, although they all had relatively mild cases. From a medical perspective, the biggest concern about the current bird flu strain is that it can spread from birds to mammals. This suggests that it can not only be transmitted to humans, but is capable of evolving to be particularly infectious.

“The bovine situation is a step up from this, just due to how widespread the virus is, and how many people have exposure to cattle (compared to small mink farms or remote sea lion colonies),” Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London and the Pirbright Institute, told Salon in June. “This clearly represents a much larger human-animal interface than the other examples.”

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