Vaccines can now be rolled out quickly

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
Updated 1h 51m ago

Knowing that the H5N1 bird flu can mutate into a form that can be easily transmitted, researchers have redoubled efforts to quickly create a vaccine should a pandemic strain emerge.

Sponsored LinksThe good news is that there now exists technology that makes creating vaccines much faster than in the past, says Rino Rappuoli, global head of vaccines research for Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, in Siena, Italy. He authored a companion paper to the H5N1 research published in Science this week. Rappuoli's piece focuses on options to improve pandemic preparation.

Fast and increasingly inexpensive machines allow the genomes, or genetic blueprints, of newly evolved flu varieties to be quickly sequenced. Instead of needing to ship live virus to vaccine manufacturers, today researchers only need to e-mail a computer file containing the genetic code.

Scientists can then simply buy short strands of genetic code from commercial DNA synthesis companies and stitch them together in the correct order to synthesize a copy, creating a virus "seed."

This can quickly be grown in cell cultures to produce vaccines. It is a process that is much faster than the current one, which involves injecting the actual virus into chicken eggs to grow. "The hurdle will be only to change the regulatory process," Rappuoli says.

Some of this is being implemented, says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

He envisions the creation of libraries of possible viruses for quick-turnaround vaccine production. Powerful computers now make it possible to do "computational sequencing of every possible strain of influenza that could emerge," Fauci says. A databank of virus seeds for making vaccine can be created so when a new flu strain emerges "you don't have to count on growing it and growing it in the right medium. You could already have the seed ready."

Vaccines can now be rolled out quickly