Deerfield, IL-based Baxter International has confirmed that vaccine shipments sent to subcontractors in Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany were contaminated with live H5N1 avian flu viruses. The contaminated product, which Baxter calls "experimental virus material," was a mix of H3N2 seasonal flu viruses and H5N1 viruses produced at the company's research facility in Orth-Donau. The problem was discovered when ferrets inoculated with the experimental mix died. Baxter was notified on February 6, but has kept quiet about the details surrounding the mix-up, the Canadian Press reports.
"At this juncture we are confident in saying that public health and occupational risk is minimal at present," medical officer Roberta Andraghetti said. "But what remains unanswered are the circumstances surrounding the incident in the Baxter facility in Orth-Donau."
According to the Sun, Christopher Bona, said in an email that the release of the product was a result of a combination of "just the process itself, (and) technical and human error in this procedure" and the company has taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. The Canadian Press reports that Bona has said that the contaminated product was not a vaccine and was developed for testing in animals only. Austrian authorities have audited operations at the facility and are satisfied with the corrective actions taken. Baxter has also worked with the subcontractors to help them destroy the contaminated products and clean up their facilities. Staff exposed to the products were offered Tamiflu and assessed by infectious disease doctors, the company tells the Canadian Press.
While H5N1 doesn't easily infect humans, the H3N2 vaccine can. As the Sun points out, someone infected with both strains could serve as an incubator for reassortment, producing a hybrid virus able to transmit easily among people. But according to Andraghetti, there is no evidence reassortment occurred. "And we have no evidence of any increased transmissibility of the viruses that were involved in the experiment with the ferrets in the Czech Republic," she added.