The European front against the lethal H5N1 variant

BRUSSELS – A vaccine that offers lifetime protection from all varieties of avian flu is the aim of some European research projects. Of course, it takes years to produce such a vaccine. How much time do we have? «The alarm for a flu pandemic has already sounded but we don’t know when it will be,» said Belgian Professor Johann Neits from the University of Leuven during our visit to a series of foundations that conduct European Union-funded research. Italian researcher Ilaria Capusa, who heads many EU and UN programs, commented: «We have only seen the tip of the iceberg, but for the first time humanity will have a chance to prepare effectively to combat an epidemic.» European Commission research director Christian Paterman said, «The Commission has already spent 20 million euros on funding for related projects since 2000, and in January it decided to spend another 20 million euros on new programs.» Chameleon A number of projects are striving toward a new vaccine to deal with avian flu and any mutated version that could cause an epidemic among humans. But the virus is a «chameleon,» said Capusa, making it hard to get the formula right. The University of Ghent is working with other European foundations on the creation of a vaccine based on the M2e protein, which is fairly stable in all forms of avian flu. M2e is one of three proteins on the surface of the virus. The researchers hope to make it available in an easily administered inhalant form. Trials on rats have been successful but further clinical trials are needed. The aim is to start manufacturing a vaccine in five years’ time. The Novaflu program has set an even more ambitious target, to create a universal vaccine that would give lifelong protection from all variants of the flu and be administered nasally. The vaccine would boost the immune system so that it could destroy infected cells and prevent them from reproducing. The Novaflu project hopes to see results in three years. EU scientists are concerned about the speed with which sizable quantities of a vaccine can be produced in the case of a flu pandemic. Currently only 200 million doses can be produced in a year, but researchers have made great advances in producing vaccines by genetic methods instead of the old time-consuming method of incubating them in eggs. «The great challenge for the development of vaccines is to do clinical experiments that will testify to their effectiveness,» said leading British virologist Professor John Oxford. But clinical testing is extremely expensive. Neither companies nor the Commission give funding at the moment for such a risky investment when it is not known if or when a pandemic will break out. Octavi Quintana, head of health research for the Commission, said that EU member states must take initiatives in that direction and start ordering the necessary vaccines. The Flusecure program hopes to contribute to this field, collecting samples of each vaccine that has proved safe and effective and encouraging the public and private sectors to foster clinical experiments. As Oxford pointed out, it is a political decision that concerns the global community: «Billions are being spent on the war in Iraq and to beat terrorism, yet the real threat is the H5N1 virus.» A new generation of drugs in laboratories Apart from racing to produce new vaccines, European researchers are working on more effective antiviral drugs. They were struck by the speed with which the H5N1 virus became resistant to Tamiflu, rendering it ineffective. Papers in scientific journals have reported that a significant number of bird flu patients in Vietnam who had been treated with Tamiflu eventually died when the virus proved resistant to the drug. «Viruses are known to be adaptable to antibiotics. We expect it, for instance, when drugs are administered to patients with AIDS over a long period, but its development after a few days’ treatment with Tamiflu was a huge surprise,» said Neits, from Leuven’s Riga Research Institute. The European Commission funds the Virgil program, which monitors resistance to antibiotics, and the Vizier program, which produces new generation drugs. The Riga Institute is involved in the attempt to make drugs against RNA viruses that will stop the virus from being replicated. Unlike Tamiflu or Relanze, which try to block proteins on the surface of the virus, the new drugs will try and hit the interior of the virus.