New technology speeding progress on bird flu vaccine

CHICAGO,  (Reuters) – Even as U.S. officials this week awaited the arrival of a sample of the new bird flu virus from China – typically the first step in making a flu vaccine – government-backed researchers had already begun testing a “seed” strain of the virus made from the genetic code posted on the Internet.

This new, faster approach is the result of a collaboration among the U.S. government, vaccine maker Novartis and a unit of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which is using synthetic biology – in which scientists take the genetic code of the virus and use it as a recipe to build the virus from scratch.

It was an idea born in the aftermath of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, in which production delays and poor-quality seed strain slowed delivery of the vaccine until October, late enough that people were already sick with swine flu.

The new method has shaved two weeks off the vaccine-making process. It will take five to six months to ramp up production, but even weeks could make a difference in the case of a potentially deadly flu pandemic, said Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA.

“We’ll take it,” said Robinson, whose agency handles pandemic preparedness as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “If the virus turns out to be a tough one, that could be very important.”

At least 33 people have been infected and 10 have died from the strain of bird flu known as avian influenza A (H7N9) first found in humans last month. So far, the strain does not appear capable of being passed from person to person. But Chinese researchers, in a report published online on Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, warned that the sudden emergence of this strain of flu “may pose a serious human health risk” and said “appropriate counter measures were urgently required.”

SOUL SEARCHING

An especially deadly strain of bird flu in 2003 known as H5N1 had already raised the threat of a global pandemic, spurring more than $2 billion in government contracts to shore up U.S. flu vaccine manufacturing capabilities.

After the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, U.S. health agencies gathered to do some soul searching. Representatives from BARDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health looked for ways to expedite the process of making flu vaccines, Robinson said.

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