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[HANOI] An international conference held in Vietnam has heard calls for US$100 million to be spent on research before the bird flu virus, H5N1, has a chance to mutate into a form capable of spreading rapidly between people.

The international community has contributed US$18 million to date.

The calls came as Vietnam reported two new cases of suspected bird flu in people, and as researchers there prepare to test their first vaccine on humans.

Experts at the conference, held last week in Ho Chi Minh City, said that targeting the virus in poultry should be a priority because the longer the virus remains widespread among chickens and ducks, the greater the chance it will mutate into a form capable of causing a global pandemic.

Since January 2004, bird flu has been confirmed in 55 people, killing 47 of them.

Scientists fear that H5N1 could exchange genetic material with the human flu virus, forming a new strain that is as deadly as bird flu and as readily spread as the human form. With this threat in mind, researchers are racing to develop an effective vaccine against the disease.

A vaccine developed by Vietnam's National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology has just completed initial safety tests in monkeys and will be tested on human volunteers if a second trial using monkeys is successful.

"Five monkeys were injected with the vaccine on 3 February, and all are healthy," says Nguyen Thu Van, one of the researchers.

After being injected with the vaccine — made from a weakened form of H5N1 — the monkeys produced antibodies against virus.

Results of the second trial on monkeys are expected next month.

Hoang Thuy Nguyen, who is leading the research, says that if the vaccine's safety is confirmed in that trial, the first safety tests in people could take place by September. Among the first group of volunteers for the trial are the researchers themselves.

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