Highlights include patenting the NCoV, swine flu’s preference for the young, H7N9 and ferrets (always ferrets), getting closer to a universal flu vaccine, synthetic biology and a H7N9 vaccine, and ricin. Happy Friday!
If you’re shaking your head at recent news detailing the spread of the novel coronavirus, and wondering why officials in these countries can’t seem to keep the virus contained, wait a second. One of the reasons health officials in the Middle East are struggling with quick diagnosis is that Saudi Arabia already entered into bilateral agreements with certain drug companies, resulting in the patenting of the virus. This means that every time a new lab (say in a new country or region) wants to work with the virus (due to its emergence locally), they need to get permission. Now, the virus was patented for reasons of vaccine and anti-viral drug development. However, instances like this get to the heart of the ongoing difficulties in the relationship between big pharma and government in relation to vaccines and drug development.
AFP – “WHO chief Margaret Chan expressed outrage at the information. ‘Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property right on new disease?’ she asked. ‘Any new disease is full of uncertainty,’ she said…’I will follow it up. I will look at the legal implications together with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No IP (intellectual property) should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people,’ she told the [WHO] delegates to thundering applause.”
It’s good to be young, unless a swine flu pandemic happens to be raging. According to new study, the 2009 H1N1 virus was especially virulent in the population under 65. Why? Those over 65 years had some degree of prior immunity, due to exposure to similar strains in their past – a phenomena known as “antigenic recycling”.
Science Daily – “The bulk of pneumonia and influenza deaths typically occur in people older than 65, but when H1N1 became the dominant flu strain in 2009, the accompanying rise in pneumonia and flu deaths took place within age groups that usually have low mortality rates. Overall, there were 53,692 pneumonia and influenza deaths in 2009, of which 2,438 were considered “excess,” or above the number expected. In 2010, there were about 50,000 deaths from pneumonia and flu, of which 196 were considered excess.”
In case you were wondering, H7N9 is in fact entirely capable of spread between humans. In a study which will no doubt launch another round of polemic debate, researchers in China infected ferrets with the virus strain, and recorded transmission of the virus to other ferrets located four inches away. The research is expected to help Chinese containment and response efforts, should the virus become more virulent. The last new case of H7N9 occurred on May 8th.
Bloomberg – “The findings support the need to reconsider management of live poultry markets, especially in urban areas, in case H7N9 becomes endemic in poultry, increasing the opportunities for the virus to evolve ‘to acquire human-to-human transmissibility,’ the authors said. ‘If this virus acquires the ability to efficiently transmit from human-to-human, extensive spread of this virus may be inevitable, as quarantine measures will lag behind its spread,’ the Chinese researchers said.”
The pharmaceutical company Sanofi has developed a virus/protein hybrid that may protect against multiple strains of flu. The vaccine fuses the highly conserved H1 glycoproteins to a “transporter protein”, which then (for some reason) form spontaneous spheres. In ferret trials, the vaccine offered protection to numerous different H1 strains. Still, flu viruses are notoriously good at mutating – no word yet on if the virus would remain viable in instances of antigenic drift.
BBC News– “Prof Sarah Gilbert, who works on universal vaccines at Oxford University, told BBC News: ‘It is an improvement on the current vaccine. It’s not a ‘universal vaccine’ but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.’ She said it might be able to get over the problems of ‘mis-match’ when there are differences between the seasonal vaccine and the flu being targeted. However, the vaccine has not yet been tested in people. Clinical grade vaccine has not yet been developed so even safety trials are thought to be a year away.”
Within a week of receiving a strain of H7N9 close to the one circulating in China, researchers at Novartis and the J. Craig Venter Institute had synthesized a vaccine. Yes, there are still hurdles to effective mass production, and no the FDA has not yet approved the new strategy, but a week turnaround time is phenomenal. It is significantly easier to send a virus’ genetic code around the world, and have scientists build their own vaccine than to it is to carefully package and send the virus itself.
Popular Science – “That turnaround time is weeks faster than the current best vaccine-making methods…The new method uses synthetic biology, or the creation of biological materials, such as viruses, without using nature’s usual reproductive methods…’I think it does have great potential for more rapidly preparing vaccines for new strains as they evolve,’ Robert Finberg, chair of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a flu researcher, told the Boston Globe.”
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