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Improving vaccine response to flu pandemics

The H1N1 influenza did not cause the devastating pandemic that many feared, but it did draw attention to how our nation lacks the ability to quickly produce sufficient quantities of a vaccine against the flu. A report issued this morning from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology outlines steps that the federal government can take both in the short term and over the long run to speed up the making and delivery of vaccines, potentially saving thousands of lives in the process.

Ann Arvin, MD, Stanford's vice provost and dean of research and a founder of the Stanford-LPCH Vaccine Program, is one of the eight committee members responsible for the report.

Among the suggestions: accelerate identification of newly emerging pandemic viruses (so vaccine production can start sooner), develop a collection of stock viral “backbones” to allow faster production of specific vaccine strains, and develop faster and more reliable tests to document vaccine potency. The report also recommends steps to dramatically alter the way vaccines are produced, most notably by "moving away from the current practice of growing influenza viruses in fertilized chicken eggs, which is an inefficient method, and using modern cell-culture systems instead.”

None of this comes without some spending, and the report calls for investing $1 billion or more annually for the next several years to accomplish these objectives. It notes that the funds can be justified on a cost-benefit basis, as the advances in these areas would improve our nation's defenses against a variety of other deadly pathogens, in addition to the savings they would provide in preventing deaths from influenza.

Indeed, some work relevant to these initiatives is already under way by researchers at Stanford, as outlined in a medical school release last year. In addition, grants from the stimulus fund are supporting a Stanford research effort to explore why vaccines against influenza prompt different responses in different people and why some people are more vulnerable to flu than others to begin with.

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