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Swine flu spreads at London school

British couple among guests finally released from quarantine after week in Hong Kong hotel

The private Alleyn's School in Dulwich, south London, became the centre of Britain's swine flu outbreak yesterday, with the confirmation of five new cases in four children and an adult. The new cases bring to 11 the total infected at the £13,437-a-year school, more than one-quarter of the 39 cases so far identified in Britain.

The Health Protection Agency said the virus was spreading but there was not yet evidence of "sustained" human -to-human transmission which could trigger a pandemic. The outbreak at Alleyn's began last weekend after one pupil returned from a trip to the US in the Easter holidays and infected five others aged 11 and 12 in year 7. The school has been closed since Monday.

The HPA said all the patients had mild infections and were recovering at home after being given antiviral drugs. Antivirals had also been given to their close contacts and were earlier distributed to all children and staff at the school as a precaution.

In Canada, an elderly woman died from H1N1, the chief medical officer for Alberta confirmed last night, the country's first death from the disease.

In Hong Kong, a British couple were among nearly 300 guests and staff released from the Metropark Hotel after being held in quarantine for nearly a week following a feared swine-flu outbreak. Eddie and Terrie Sweeney, who had intended to spend two nights in the city on their way back from visiting their daughter in New Zealand, said earlier that they could not wait to leave, but added: "The weather is beautiful here so we are really looking forward to getting out there and enjoying it."

In the UK, scientists announced that they had produced the first "genetic fingerprint" of the swine-flu strain isolated from patients in Europe, which they suggested will help in the development of a vaccine.

The full genetic sequence of the virus will allow scientists to compare strains of the H1N1 swine-flu virus circulating in Britain with strains found in Mexico and the United States, where the outbreak is more advanced.

The HPA said scientists had sequenced 12,000 of the 14,000 "letters" of the viral genetic code and that it had begun sharing different isolates of the virus with other scientific centres involved in developing a vaccine.

The annoucement was timed to coincide with a visit by the Health Secretary Alan Johnson to the agency's National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. It suggested that sequencing the full genome is important to vaccine development, although flu vaccines in the past have been made without sequencing the virus.

Mr Johnson said the Government's objective was to produce enough vaccine to combat swine flu as well as annual seasonal flu.In July 2007, advanced supply agreements were signed to enable the UK to buy up to 132 million doses of pandemic-specific vaccine when it becomes available. The agreements are worth £154.4m over four years.

Mr Johnson said: "We have what is called sleeping contracts to get a vaccine manufactured against the outbreak of a pandemic of H1N1. We are working very hard to get this supplied. We will have enough vaccine for the whole of the population. Now, at the same time, we do not want to diminish or dilute our stocks of normal seasonal flu vaccine, so we want to do both. We think and we hope that we can do both."

The European Medicines Agency yesterday recommended that the shelf life of Tamiflu, the main antiviral drug, be extended from five years to seven years. Britain began stockpiling the drug in 2005 and its supply of 33 million packs, shortly to rise to 50 million, would have started to go out of date from next year.

The Agency said that, subject to ratification by the EU Commission, all new stocks of Tamiflu would be given a seven-year expiry date. But it added that, in the event of a pandemic being declared by the World Health Organisation, stocks already on the market could be used for up to an extra two years beyond their five-year expiry date, to help prevent shortages.