On Pandemic Preparendness, Surveillance, and Surprise

After working with Bio-era for several years on pandemic preparedness, pathogen surveillance, and synthetic vaccines, a few things jumped out at me from ScienceInsider's interview with CDC Virologist Ruben Donis.

As part of the discussion on the origin of the present "H1N1 Influenza A", as we are now supposed to call it, Donis notes that "The amazing thing is the hemagglutinins we are seeing in this strain are a lonely branch that have been evolving somewhere and we didn't know about it."

Translation: Despite the increased surveillance since 2005, a key set of genes that are important components of the present virus(es) appeared out of nowhere, or, rather, appeared out of somewhere that the surveillance does not reach.  Must fix.  Immediately.

With respect to vaccine development, Donis suggests that "The virus doesn't grow very well in eggs. We hope the virus will improve [the] ability to grow in eggs so we can produce [a] vaccine very quickly so these secondary and tertiary cases can be controlled."  It is unclear at this point in the interview whether he is referring specifically to "H1N1 Influenza A", or to a larger group of viruses, or something else.  Assuming he means the present (almost pandemic) strain, it is interesting that somebody at CDC already knows the bug doesn't grow well in eggs.  It is also unclear what he means by "we hope the virus will improve [the] ablity to grow in eggs" -- perhaps he is referring to an effort to produce a vaccine via reverse genetics for production in eggs.  Either way, it suggests we may have to rely on newer technologies to produce vaccines (see my earlier posts on synthetic vaccines).

I have heard rumors that DARPA has a program up and running to turn out several million doses of synthetic vaccines (VLPs, primarily) in six weeks.  Here's hoping those are more than rumors.

The interview with Donis ends on a rather somber note:  Even though the flu season is ending in North America and Europe, we can't forget the rest of the planet: "The folks in Buenos Aires are in trouble. They're entering winter now."

This is a long, long way from being over.