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University of Pennsylvania scientists working on new bird flu vaccine amid growing concerns over virus mutation

While the bird flu threat to humans is small, there's still a high interest in the vaccine
While the bird flu threat to humans is small, there's still a high interest in the vaccine 02:27

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- For the first time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says bird flu has caused respiratory symptoms in one of three infected dairy workers. With concerns growing about avian flu spreading, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are working on a new bird flu vaccine.

Scientists at Penn say they now have the technology to quickly make vaccines and while the risk of getting bird flu is low, it is spreading and there's renewed focus on the vaccine.

"It mounts a very good or elicits a very good immune response," Dr. Scott Hensley, an immunologist at Penn, said. 

Hensley led the study on mice and ferrets and said with the bird flu now spreading from cows to dairy workers, it's showing signs of mutating.

"This virus is circulating very widely in birds and now in cows and that scares me because cows are an animal that humans have a lot of contact with," Hensley said. "What we fear is that the virus will start changing to replicate better in cows and that some of those mutations that might occur during that process might facilitate better replication in humans."

Hensley hopes this doesn't turn into the newest pandemic. 

"But you know, we never really know when a virus is going to make that jump from other animals into humans," Hensley said. 

Currently, experts from the CDC said the threat to humans is low, but there's high interest in the vaccine, which in addition to people, might also be used in poultry or dairy cows.

This new vaccine is following the same pipeline that led to the quick development of the COVID vaccine.

"mRNA vaccines are such an agile platform," Hensley said. "As soon as we see a new virus, whether it's a coronavirus, or in this case a flu virus, we can very quickly design new mRNA vaccines to be specifically matched to what's circulating."

Currently, the virus is contained to just workers exposed to infected cows. There's been no human-to-human transmission. But there is now the first case of a dairy worker with respiratory symptoms, which might make it easier to spread.

The three known infected dairy workers are in Texas and Michigan. There have been no indications of any people or dairy cows in this region being infected with bird flu. 

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