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Engineers could aid bird flu vaccine effort

Written by: Staff

Cleveland, Apr 11: Avian flu experts have appealed to engineers, a group largely left out of flu preparedness efforts, to come up with potential breakthroughs for speeding vaccine production in case of a deadly pandemic.

The hope is that engineers could use their expertise in areas such as assembly lines and production techniques to help vaccine developers jump hurdles.

The matter has gained urgency as the H5N1 flu strain moves quickly among birds in Asia, Europe and Africa. Experts worry it could change to a form that spreads easily among people and kills millions.

An effective flu vaccine would be key to slowing the movement of the virus, but producing sufficient quantities would take time.

''We have so far a situation that is not satisfactory ... it's very difficult for many people to predict how much (vaccine) is going to be available two, three or even five months after a pandemic has emerged,'' Klaus Stohr, head of the World Health Organization's influenza team said yesterday.

It could take at least nine months to have 1 billion doses available for the world's 6.4 billion people, he said. ''By this point in time, the virus may have gone around the world already twice,'' he said.

Stohr spoke to a meeting sponsored by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering. It was held on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The idea of turning to engineers emerged when some Case faculty heard Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warn that a vaccine could not be produced fast enough during a flu pandemic.

''As engineers we sat there ... and said, 'Why can't we do that?''' said Dr. John Anderson, a chemical engineering professor at Case Western.

''Research from the engineering community needs to look at processes that have been entrenched, in a rut, for decades,'' said Patrick Scannon, chief scientific and medical officer for biotechnology company Xoma Ltd., a small biotechnology company.

In the meantime, governments have been urging companies to step up production capacity. Existing vaccine factories can make only 900 million doses of influenza vaccine globally -- far short of what would be needed in a pandemic when billions of people would need to be vaccinated.


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