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[BEIJING] Chinese scientists have begun testing a vaccine against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) on human volunteers.

One female and three male college students were injected on Saturday (22 May) with either the SARS vaccine or a placebo at the Beijing-based China-Japan Friendship Hospital, according to Zheng Xiaoyu, director-general of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA). Preliminary results suggest that no abnormal reaction to the vaccine has occurred in any of the four volunteers.

This initial phase of testing is mainly to ensure that the vaccine is safe for humans. The second phase of clinical testing, which will explore the effectiveness of the vaccine, will involve more participants.

The vaccine has been developed by the Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech Co Ltd. It has already been shown to be safe and effective in experiments on animals, including rhesus monkeys.

US scientists have successfully tested a SARS vaccine on animals (see New findings give SARS vaccine hope) but according to Roy Wadia, a Beijing-based spokesman for the World Health Organisation, China "is the first to get to the human testing stage".

A special committee has been set up to protect the rights of the volunteers, who are free to participate or withdraw from the test at any time.

In an interview in December, Yin Hongzhang, an official in charge of biopharmaceutical products with the SFDA, said that China would take a highly responsible attitude on the development of a SARS vaccine.

"If there is no widespread SARS epidemic, it may take us three to five years to test, review and approve a SARS vaccine," he said.

SARS first emerged in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in late 2002, and spread worldwide in early 2003. It infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed 774, before abating in July 2003.

In December and January, China reported four cases of SARS infection in the southern province of Guangdong. In April, nine people were reported to be infected by SARS in Beijing and Anhui Province. Eight recovered but one died.

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