U.S. is ill-prepared, flu researchers warn

Pandemic could wipe out supplies of anti-viral drugs

November 28, 2003|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

With memories of SARS still fresh, researchers are warning that the nation is ill-prepared to deal with a global flu epidemic that could prove far more deadly.

Influenza experts from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., called on the federal government to stockpile anti-viral drugs and to remove barriers to faster methods of producing flu vaccine.

"We can't predict when these pandemics are going to occur," Dr. Robert G. Webster, a flu researcher and co-author of an article in today's Science magazine said in a briefing Wednesday. "It doesn't just make sense to respond to these emergencies when they arise."

In a major epidemic, supplies of anti-viral drugs that can stop flu from spreading would run out in a few days, he said. It would take months to develop a vaccine against a killer strain using current techniques, which means any new vaccine would arrive too late to protect most people from infection.

Large global epidemics - called pandemics - occur about every 30 years. The last was the 1968 Hong Kong flu, although far worse was the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which claimed more than 20 million lives worldwide.

Warning signs have come this year from two outbreaks of flu that jumped from birds to humans, Webster said. One killed a man in Hong Kong, and the other infected 80 people on chicken farms and killed a veterinarian in the Netherlands.

The new flu strains lack the ability to spread from person to person, but Webster said a simple genetic change could have given them the power to do so.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that this flu season could be worse than usual. It arrived early, and the vaccine does not perfectly match the strain doctors are seeing. Officials said the vaccine offers some protection but is less than ideal.

In a typical year, up to a fifth of Americans get the flu, and it kills about 36,000 and hospitalizes more than 100,000. But most of those who get it don't develop serious symptoms.

Bruce Gellin, director of the National Vaccine Program Office, said warnings about a pandemic are appropriate but that the "bad year" that seems to be taking shape in no way resembles the pandemic that experts fear. "The important thing is that bad flu years remind people of how bad it could be," he said.

"It's also a reminder of what influenza is. This is a serious invasive infection that has the potential to be transmitted to other people," he said. "SARS was a reminder, but it turned out not to be that infectious."

Webster called on the federal government to speed the use of a new method of vaccine production called reverse genetics, which in theory could make a vaccine available weeks after a fearsome strain appears.

Clinical trials that are needed to ensure that the technique is ready are being impeded by protections given to companies that own the patents, he said.

Linda Lambert, influenza program officer with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the agency is funding a clinical trial that should begin next year.

Researchers will develop a practice vaccine targeting strains similar to those that could cause trouble. Once a method is perfected, the government will work with drug makers to ensure that their commercial rights are honored, she said.

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