Canada to step up flu vaccine research

Canadian health officials created a network of researchers on Friday to speed up influenza research, saying they will test new vaccines against the H1N1 flu.

The network of 80 scientists from 30 research and public health institutions will get C$10.8 million $9.7 million over three years, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said.

"We have put this research network in place ahead of schedule to help us respond to the current flu outbreak," she said.

"Through this network, scientists from across the country will play a critical role in helping to protect the health of Canadians and their families."

The new strain of H1N1 swine flu has infected 1,795 Canadians and killed three. While it is mild now, global health officials fear it could turn into a more virulent form.

"So far, the impact has been relatively mild here in Canada but we must be vigilant and we must be ready to respond, and of course research will play a major role in this," Aglukkaq said at a news conference.

Globally, the new strain has been confirmed in 21,940 people and has killed 125, although U.S. health officials say they suspect more than 200,000 people there are infected.

The World Health Organization and other health authorities have not decided whether a vaccine against the new H1N1 strain will be needed but many companies are starting to work on one.

"The decision in regard to the vaccine will be made shortly. It requires a global response. We are working with the WHO and the affected international communities on that," Aglukkaq said.

Canada's network, linking the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Public Health Agency of Canada, will be led by Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Researchers will investigate ways to start human trials quickly, test new vaccines against the H1N1 strain, and work on ways to create and distribute vaccines quickly in case of a flu pandemic.

In addition, Dr. Guy Boivin at Universite Laval will track the evolution of the H1N1 virus, test antiviral drugs against it and look for new drugs.

Dr. Babak Pourbohloul at the University of British Columbia and his team will create mathematical models to rapidly analyze the transmission and spread of the virus and evaluate potential ways to curb its spread.

Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said Canada is ramping up for an expected outbreak later this year.

"We have a pandemic now ... this virus is unquestionably spreading," she told Reuters.

"We are still seeing a lot of activity and I think most people's sense is that we are actually going to see a summer wave in Canada, but we just have to wait and see. The worst is yet to come."

Additional reporting by Nina Lex and Scott Anderson in Toronto; editing by Rob Wilson

in Bulgaria. AP