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PATH to use Gates gift to help poor nations make flu vaccine

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  • PATH to use Gates gift to help poor nations make flu vaccine


    Seattle-based PATH has received $39 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help poor countries explore using new technologies to rapidly and cheaply develop their own supply of flu vaccines in preparation for a severe influenza pandemic.

    "There's a tremendous amount of money already being put into (creating a vaccine for pandemic flu), but those funds are not being used to address the needs of the developing world," said Dr. John Boslego, director of vaccine development at PATH. "Our target population is in poor countries."

    The looming threat of a severe form of flu, spawned by a mutated bird flu virus, that could kill tens of millions of people has prompted a flurry of research by drug firms and the biomedical community aimed at finding a new, faster method for making flu vaccines.

    The standard method of flu vaccine production today is based on growing the vaccine in lab cultures made from chicken eggs. It takes months to develop a vaccine once the flu strain is identified. And if a new, deadlier flu does arise from a mutated strain of bird flu, the archaic, poultry-based vaccine production system would itself be at risk for the infection.

    Today, the drug industry produces about 400 million doses of vaccine to provide routine immunization against flu. A pandemic would require anywhere from 7 billion to 14 billion doses of flu vaccine if the goal were to completely protect against the disease.

    "A global flu pandemic will require a global response," said Dr. Gina Rabinovitch, head of development for the global health program at the Gates Foundation. The pandemic could begin in a developing country, Rabinovitch said, with the rest of the world's fate to some extent determined by that poor nation's ability to respond to the outbreak.

    Scientists worldwide are exploring new approaches, such as genetic engineering, to come up with faster, more accurate methods of flu vaccine development. But most of the efforts are aimed at supplying wealthy nations with enough flu vaccine to protect their own populations -- and at a price dictated by the Western pharmaceutical market.

    If poor countries are to respond in a pandemic, Boslego said they would have to be able to supply themselves with the flu vaccine at a cost of only pennies per dose.

    "Our ultimate goal here is to get these vaccines made in these countries," he said.

    PATH has done this before, helping poor or middle-income countries start their own vaccine-production operations against neglected diseases such as Japanese encephalitis, meningococcal strains specific to Africa and rotavirus.

    "New, affordable vaccines are urgently needed to protect developing country populations and strengthen worldwide efforts to contain an outbreak," said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, a vaccine expert at the World Health Organization.

    PATH plans to use the $39 million over the next three to four years to establish vaccine-development partnerships, both public and private, in low- and middle-income countries.
    "The next major advancement in the health of American people will be determined by what the individual is willing to do for himself"-- John Knowles, Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation