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Thousands Volunteer For Swine Flu Vaccine Test

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Joanne, good morning.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how has swine flu spent its summer vacation?

SILBERNER: Well, it's gone to the southern hemisphere, especially South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. It's going strong there. In the U.S. it's gone to camp. It's been at a number of summer camps, and it's been in a few other places, but mostly the summer camps.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens when kids start going back to school, which is happening any day now?

SILBERNER: Right. And everybody's best guess is that it's going to come back to school with kids, but nobody really knows. The theory, of course, is that viruses spread better when people are close to one another and you get that in school. Flu viruses spread better in cooler, dryer air. You get that as the fall comes on. But I've got to tell you, if you talk to two virologists, you'll hear three times that the flu is unpredictable.

INSKEEP: They don't know that there's going to be a massive pandemic or do they assume that much? That it's going to be massive, we just don't know exactly how.

SILBERNER: It looks like it, because it's been so big in the southern hemisphere. It looks like a bad flu season.

INSKEEP: Well, how soon will we see a vaccine from those 2,800 people rolling up their sleeves and getting tested here?

SILBERNER: And years ago the government convinced vaccine manufacturers they really needed to step up their production capabilities. And that's when people were worried about - remember avian flu or bird flu?

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

SILBERNER: That concern led to an incredibly build up of what manufacturers can do. And we're taking advantage of that now, because there probably will be enough around.

INSKEEP: Do they still make the vaccine by injecting you with basically a weaker version of the same virus? Is that what this vaccine is?

SILBERNER: Well, no. the way they make most seasonal flu vaccines is they take the new virus - because every year, seasonal flu switches a little and they pick new virus strains to work with. They combine them with another vaccine. It's actually pretty cool and a little complicated. This combination vaccine produces some of the proteins of the virus that you're worried about. And then they kill the virus and they take off those proteins and that becomes the vaccine.

INSKEEP: Is it safe?

SILBERNER: Well, it looks like it. The seasonal flu vaccine, you know, we're talking billions of doses of these various flus over the years - these various vaccines - and they've all been safe. So the thought is there's no reason to think that this one will be any different.

INSKEEP: Although manufacturing this, if I'm not mistaken, is a slow process. Is there going to be vaccine for 300 million Americans or a desire to get that many Americans to take the vaccine?

SILBERNER: Who's going to get the vaccine? Well, there's some surprises there, because the government's come up with its list. And on the list are pregnant women. Not usually considered for, you know, for new things. But pregnant women are being disproportionately affected by this virus.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they're saying the risk of not taking the vaccine is greater than the risk of taking the vaccine?

SILBERNER: There's not a concern for older people, which is unusual, because that's - seasonal flu usually gets older people first. But in this case it looks like they have their own immunity from having seen a similar virus back before 1957.

INSKEEP: Joanne, thanks very much.

SILBERNER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanne Silberner giving us the update on swine flu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: August 11, 2009 at 3:55 PM EDT
In our swine flu update, NPR reporter Joanne Silberner said that previous seasonal flu vaccines have all been safe. As she and other NPR reporters have noted in other stories, there are questions about the safety of a flu vaccine used in 1976. After an unexpected outbreak of swine flu that year, a new vaccine was developed and used in 40 million people. Several hundred cases of a neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome developed among those vaccinated, including 25 deaths. Researchers who studied the incident still are not sure whether it was the vaccine that caused the syndrome or if some viral infection or other cause was responsible for those cases of GB.
Joanne Silberner
Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.