MedImmune Partners with NIAID To Develop ‘Library’ of Vaccines for Avian Flu
Maryland-based MedImmune and NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have reached an agreement to collaborate on the production and testing of a "library of vaccines for more than a dozen strains of avian flu," the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, public health officials have warned that avian flu, which is circulating in Southeast Asia, could mutate into a form transmissible among humans, potentially causing a worldwide pandemic.
To prepare for such an event, the federal government recently awarded a $100 million contract to Sanofi-Aventis to manufacture doses of a vaccine to target the current strain, called H5N1. NIAID is hoping to develop vaccines for the remaining 15 strains of avian flu in existence (Rosenwald, Washington Post, 9/29).
Using its seasonal FluMist nasal spray influenza vaccine as a base, MedImmune will develop prototype vaccines for each of the strains, and NIAID will conduct clinical trials of the prototypes, the Baltimore Sun reports (Bishop, Baltimore Sun, 9/29).
FluMist uses a live but weakened version of the virus to confer immunity, a fact that could have more advantages than traditional flu vaccines, which do not use live strains, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci said. Researchers believe such "live vaccines" provide a broader range of coverage that can protect those who have been inoculated even if the molecular structure of the virus changes to create a new strain, the Post reports. "You get more cross-protection," Kathleen Coelingh, MedImmune's senior director of scientific affairs, said, adding, "It doesn't have to be a perfect match" (Washington Post, 9/29).
MedImmune will use "reverse genetics technology" to develop vaccines for the various avian flu strains, including H5N1 (Wall Street Journal, 9/29). The method requires researchers to obtain samples of the different strains and then reproduce the protein that attaches to humans' nasal passages, causing infection. The engineered protein then is attached to the FluMist vaccine. Coelingh said it could take several years for MedImmune to complete the library, and the company initially will focus on the H5N1 strain and several others that are circulating.
According to the Post, the "financial implications of the partnership are unclear" because the deal between MedImmune and NIAID is for research and testing, not for the commercial prospects of the vaccines that could be produced (Washington Post, 9/29). Industry and medical experts said news of the agreement should help FluMist, which has had "disappointing sales," in part because of fears that the live virus could make people sick, the Sun reports (Baltimore Sun, 9/29).
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who announced the partnership on Wednesday, said, "The threat of pandemic flu is an urgent health challenge. This agreement will help speed the process of developing vaccines we need to fight an outbreak if the avian flu starts to spread rapidly through the human population" (CQ HealthBeat, 9/28). Fauci added, "Given the natural evolution (of the virus), we're overdue for a pandemic. I'd like to get as many people involved in the influenza vaccine field as possible" (Baltimore Sun, 9/29).
Coelingh added, "We are trying to prepare for the other potential strains that might take over our attention. We want to have a library against the various forms, so we can pull them off the shelf in the future" (Washington Post, 9/29). George Kemble, vice president of research and development at MedImmune Vaccines -- a Calif.-based unit of MedImmune, said -- "Many of the world's experts think that the pandemic is not an 'if,' it's a 'when.' We're trying to be prepared for that inevitability."
William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the development of MedImmune's FluMist technology would mean the U.S. "could deliver the nasal vaccine through a spray route to a large population with greater efficiency and less concern for all the safety issues associated with needles" (Baltimore Sun, 9/29).
The San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday examined avian flu and the possibility that it could mutate into a form transmissible between humans. World Health Organization Director-General Lee Jong-wook at a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday warned North and South American health leaders, "There is a storm brewing that will test us all. We must anticipate it and prepare to the very best of our combined abilities."
According to the Chronicle, efforts are under way in the U.S. to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic influenza resulting from avian flu, including production of an experimental vaccine for the H5N1 virus and stockpiling the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Meanwhile, U.S. scientists "are warily scanning the skies ... for signs of the virus in migrating waterfowl that cross continents and make their seasonal trips to the southern reaches of the United States," the Chronicle reports. If the virus does reach the U.S., health officials will have to be prepared to implement stricter surveillance and biosecurity measures for flocks of birds (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/28).
The Washington Times on Thursday published an editorial and an opinion piece related to avian flu. Summaries appear below.
- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.): The U.S. is "dangerously unprepared to defend" itself against the avian flu virus, which could "devastate the human population while causing massive economic and social chaos" if it causes a pandemic influenza, Frist writes in a Times opinion piece. He continues, "Given our inadequate preparation, ... many deaths could happen" in the U.S., possibly resulting in "massive declines in [gross domestic product], limitations on travel and enormous loss of life." Given such a possibility, the U.S. "needs to act immediately," Frist says, calling for stockpiling of enough antiviral drugs to treat "at least half the U.S. population" and improving the U.S.'s "ability to defend against an outbreak at home or abroad." He notes that the enactment of Project BioShield was a start to preparation efforts, but Congress and the Bush administration "still need to do much more." He concludes, "Right now, preparing to face a pandemic should rank very high among our nation's priorities. And, for the safety of its people, our nation needs to act now" (Frist, Washington Times, 9/29).
- Washington Times: The federal government is "not doing enough to create favorable conditions for companies building" compounds needed to fight avian flu and other biological problems facing the U.S., a Times editorial states. According to the Times, the enactment of Project BioShield was "a good start, but not nearly enough," and the "record on implementing BioShield was not encouraging." The Times notes that it took the U.S. three years and eight months after the October 2001 anthrax attacks before HHS stockpiled the first doses of anthrax vaccine, in part because of "foot dragging" in Congress and the Bush administration and no assurances from the government that it would purchase companies' products "with a minimum of red tape." Now, the Times states, "the same thing appears to be happening on radiological threats," with Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals complaining of foot-dragging and "lack of leadership" and "sense of urgency" with respect to development of its product Neumune, which lessens radiation sickness. The company said the slowness of the government "has basically killed the capital markets and ability to raise money to develop these drugs." The Times concludes, "Clearly, these are all public goods which the national interest requires we produce. It's time for Congress to create a stronger BioShield program that creates the market needed to bring them into existence" (Washington Times, 9/29).
WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show," an NPR-syndicated program, on Wednesday in the first hour of the program included a discussion of U.S. preparations for a possible avian flu epidemic. Guests on the program included Fauci and Leavitt (Rehm, "The Diane Rehm Show," WAMU, 9/28). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer, Windows Media and Quicktime Media formats.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.