Each year hundreds of thousands die as a result of influenza, millions become infected and the loss to the economy runs into billions.
Vaccines are available but they are manufactured using old technology and cannot be produced on a mass scale.
That is why scientists are hard at work in Vienna as part of the European Research Project FLUVACC to develop a new nasal vaccine. Phil is a medical student, he has already tried it.
Phillippe Neth, FLUVACC project volunteer:
He said: “If I could choose between intramuscular or nasal spray, I’d prefer the nasal spray because I don’t want to have any pain and it’s faster.”
Nasal sprays will make vaccination easier. It eradicates the fear factor, especially for children and those afraid of needles.
Aleyna is 10 years old and requires vaccination as she is diabetic. For her and for the paediatricians, a nasal vaccine makes the whole process less traumatic.
Elisabeth Förster-Waldl , Paediatrician and Immunologist, Medical University of Vienna said:
“We are interested in pushing up the ratio of the vaccinated population which have chronic diseases. That’s why we welcome ideas that give us the opportunity to vaccinate in a easier way, and that patients will accept much better.”
This vaccine takes away any stress involved and can be administered in the comfort of one’s home.
Volker Wacheck, Molecular Pharmacologist, at the Medical University of Vienna said: “The patient can vaccinate himself without going to the doctor. Also it looks like changes that we can measure with blood analysis say that the vaccine is more effective. So if we are talking about protection against an epidemic it appears that with this nasal vaccine we are better protected than with a traditional intramuscular vaccine.”
Another advantage of the nasal vaccine is that it is applied to the area where the infection takes place.
This system looks to go a step further thanks to a new production system developed here in Vienna.
Thomas Muster, coordinator of the FLUVACC project, said: “We have produced our vaccine with so-called reverse genetics. That means that we can do everything faster. In three or four days we can generate any strain of the influenza, both seasonal influenza or a influenza epidemic, to start the production of the vaccine.”
Researchers first identify the gene, the protein, that makes the virus dangerous and invisible within the human body. Then they wipe it.
Andrej Egorov is a Virologist from AVIR Green Hills Biotechnology:
“We remove this protein that makes the virus invisible to the body. When we inject our vaccine nasally, cells immediately recognise that a virus invasion has happened and the body starts to react and immediately closes this invasion expansion.”
Traditionally vaccines are produced by injecting viruses into chicken eggs. But this method of production cannot produce the number of vaccines required in the case of a major epidemic.
Researchers are now using cell cultures to replace the humble egg.
“In theory with this cells-based vaccine approach we can produce enough doses for the entire human population of this planet.”
Thomas Muster. Coordinator, FLUVACC project:
“The vaccine is produced in cell culture. This is an important advantage compared to the traditional production with eggs because there are people who are allergic to eggs. They can have an anaphylactic shock and with this new vaccine this is not a problem.”
In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, researchers are also involved in the project. The scientists here have developed a new technology to purify the vaccine, the last stage before application.
In this lab they receive the vaccine produced by the cell culture. The medicine is not yet ready for use.
Aleš Štrancar, Chemist and Managing Director, BIA Separations:
“The viral particle, which is the base for the vaccine, is being prepared in, let’s say, some kind of soup. There are like 10,000 or 20,000 different substances and only one is some kind of a vaccine. We need to pull it out as pure as possible because other stuff may not be good, may even be poison.”
This is the soup. The small white points are the vaccine. The bigger ones are an invasion. This can now be removed by a chemical reaction that takes place within this “intelligent filter”.
“For the patient this means that they will get safer products, they will get cheaper products, and in some cases they will get things faster.”
Scientists hope the vaccine will encourage people to become immunised.
For Professor Franc Strle, one of the most respected Slovenian flu experts, there is only one way to attack flu and stop epidemics and that is vaccination.
Franc Strle, Epidemiologist, University Medical Centre Ljubljana
“It’s strange that we do not appreciate that influenza is taking hundreds of thousands of lives every year. But we just are used to this and we do not do anything special to prevent this.”
In Slovenia a mere 10 per cent of the population is vaccinated even when the side effects are less dangerous than people think.
“Nobody is asking whether air-bags in cars are important, but there are, I read this recently, for 800 saved lives because of airbags, there are 20 deaths also. This had never been questioned whether this is OK or not. We take air-bags for granted. The proportion is much higher for the influenza vaccine.”
Back to Vienna to take a look at the results of the clinical test. Researchers say that the new vaccine will protect individuals better because it’s supposed to be effective against both the virus and its eventual mutations.
“With the clinical test we have seen that our vaccine promises to give us a better protection and also have low level side effects.”
Flu will never be totally eradicated, but we can find ways to fight it better and be more prepared for mass outbreaks.
That’s the aim of these scientists who are engaged in a race against time to reinvent the battle against the dreaded flu bug.