China claims to be well on the way towards vaccinating every domestic bird in the country against avian flu. The bold scheme — which would mean inoculating some 14 billion birds — was announced on 15 November and comes in response to outbreaks that animal-health officials say are dangerously widespread. On 16 November, China confirmed its first two human cases of bird flu, one of which was fatal.

The agricultural ministry says it began a large-scale compulsory vaccination programme in 2004, covering outbreak areas and places considered to be at high risk. According to a ministry official, some 8 billion birds (60% of China's domestic bird population) have already been vaccinated. The use of vaccines in specific areas has successfully reduced the number of outbreaks, says Fusheng Guo, the avian-flu surveillance network coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in China.

But Guo says that the number of outbreaks, which reached 17 on 21 November, means that China is approaching an “emergency situation”. And that makes mass vaccination even more urgent. “It's a good idea if you can do it properly, with surveillance afterwards,” Guo says.

Can China complete such a huge programme? Yes, according to Guo, who says that the country's ten vaccine producers can make 16 billion doses of vaccine per year. If need be, he says, they could double that amount by doubling workers' shifts.

The FAO's senior officer for the Infectious Disease Group in Rome, Juan Lubroth, says that China's technology and research in vaccines is top notch — including use of reverse genetics, in which a section of the virus's gene responsible for virulence is removed.

But Lubroth warns that care must be taken to maintain the quality of the vaccines. “If the vaccine is substandard, you won't get any protection where you think you did.” The ‘vaccine brigades’ must also wash clothing and equipment so they don't spread the virus, he says.

There has been scepticism over whether it will be possible to deliver the vaccines to all of the birds kept in small backyard farms. “The logistics of herding in all those loose chickens and ducks is a little more difficult,” says Lubroth. But China has proved itself with its belated but impressive response to SARS, says Guo: “Policemen and soldiers can help in some areas.”