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19th February 2020
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Fighting flu on the WWW

Posted 15/05/2013 by sevans

Following on from the news in the current (May) issue of C&I (2013, 5, 7), a paper in the latest issue of Science Transl. Med. (doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3006368) reports the reassuring story that a synthetic vaccine technology could potentially curb pandemics by producing the vaccines needed to make flu viruses much faster than current methods.

By adopting the synthetic technology, the researchers say that genetic sequence information about a new virus could also be obtained and posted to the internet by a lab close to the site of the outbreak, thereby making this important information available for vaccine manufacturers much faster than waiting for the vaccine virus to arrive in the traditional manner by post.

In the latest study, researchers at Swiss pharma major Novartis received parts of the genetic code of an unknown flu virus – a strain of the newly detected H7N1 virus – from a government biomedical agency. Using this information, they created synthetic DNA, which was inserted into cells to produce a vaccine virus found to trigger the correct immune response in ferrets, the main model for human influenza. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that key parts of the vaccine required for an effective immune response matched the infection-causing virus.

While the Novartis researchers claim to have made their synthetic vaccine virus in roughly a week in the laboratory, scientists caution that more work is required before the technology can be adopted at scale in real-world scenarios. Obtaining sequence information by internet, meanwhile, will speed up the delivery of the raw data for vaccine design, but it may not necessarily hasten the manufacturing process, for which the tried and tested method of producing vaccines in chicken eggs currently appears to be the safest and most reliable option.

And, as the item in this month’s C&I reports, this latest news may do little to allay bigger concerns – over the apparent reluctance of certain national governments to disclose genetic sequence information at the earliest possible date. With ever more new and emerging diseases on our doorstep, this lack of cooperation between national governments and scientific establishments may be the biggest threat yet.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor

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