Md. firm to make avian flu vaccines

MedImmune applies FluMist technology as part of U.S. effort

September 29, 2005|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

With the threat of a large-scale avian influenza epidemic looming, the federal government has enlisted Maryland-based MedImmune Inc. to help it prepare for such a possibility.

The Gaithersburg company announced yesterday that it would collaborate with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a library of vaccines -- based on its seasonal FluMist nasal spray -- that could be rapidly manufactured in the event of a widespread flu outbreak.

MedImmune will provide the prototype vaccines, and the institute will run them through clinical trials.

"That's what we bring to the table," said institute director Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who describes the agreement as a formalization of a long-standing collaboration. One of the scientists who will be working with MedImmune developed the patented technology the drugmaker later acquired.

The company has offered to license the technology to others working to develop vaccines for pandemic flu.

Sales of its FluMist, a nasal spray alternative to vaccines injected to prevent standard strains of flu, have been disappointing, in part because the current version is difficult to store and often misunderstood.

Some fear that FluMist's use of live, but severely weakened, virus might actually make people sick, though there is no evidence of that.

Industry and medical experts said yesterday's news should help FluMist, which is being tested in a new version, while offering an alternative to injectable pandemic vaccines under development.

"We could deliver the nasal vaccine through a spray route to a large population with greater efficiency and less concern for all the safety issues associated with needles," such as containment, disposal and security, said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and a member of the steering committee of the National Network for Immunization Information. "Anything that's done to keep [MedImmune] in the market is a good thing. ... We need them."

MedImmune stock rose $1.65, or 5 percent, yesterday to close at $33.23 on the Nasdaq stock market.

According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, a so-called pandemic attack could infect up to 35 percent of the population and cost more than $100 billion in care alone. Warding off such an attack could require as many as 124 million vaccine doses.

In the past century, there have been three such influenza epidemics in the United States, during which more than 600,000 people died. The last one took place in 1968.

"Given the natural evolution [of the virus], we're overdue for a pandemic," said Fauci, whose agency is also working with other companies to develop vaccines. "I'd like to get as many people involved in the influenza vaccine field as possible."

The avian influenza virus currently circulating is particularly distressing to scientists, because unlike other flu strains, it has evolved to jump from animals to humans, who have no natural immunity to it. The virus has killed nearly 60 people abroad, mostly in Vietnam and Thailand.

"Many of the world's experts think that the pandemic is not an `if,' it's a `when,'" said George Kemble, vice president of research and development at MedImmune Vaccines Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-based arm of the Maryland company. "We're trying to be prepared for that inevitability."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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