At the Crossroads of Pharmaceuticals and Engineering

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Throughout history, influenza pandemics have come around two to three times every century. The last pandemic hit the United States in 1957, leading Klaus Stohr of the World Health Organization to believe another one is just over the horizon.

Klaus Stohr: We are concerned because the last pandemic is more then 27.5 years ago, so we are a little overdue.

Stohr says based on past pandemic analysis, up to 500 million people in the world could become ill and nearly three million could die. Immunization, he says, is the best way to curb a global pandemic and it doesn't take much time at all to identify a virus and produce a vaccine. It's the three months to mass produce vaccines that's the problem.

Klaus Stohr: After three months - that's the current model - the pandemic virus would have occurred on all continents.

And by that time, Stohr says the virus may begin to mutate, rendering the vaccine just coming on the market ineffective. Stohr says the World Health Organization is working vigilantly on this issue, but a government's timely response ultimately depends on how fast millions of doses can be made.

Patrick Scannon is the founder of the California company Xoma, a antibody research firm. He says this lag time in production is mainly because most vaccines are made from poultry eggs. It's a slow process to incubate these eggs with little room to expand in a crisis. That's because it wouldn't make financial sense for a vaccine company to build an extra facility, just for it to stand idle, waiting for a pandemic.

Patrick Scannon: In part, that's because the pharmaceutical industry has been oriented to taking care of sick people. Vaccines take care of healthy people. And the pharmaceutical industry has trouble, I think, conceptually putting its arms around that.

Scannon says to make a difference in a pandemic, manufacturing output would have to expand by 10 or 100 times. That means discovering new ways to produce vaccines. Shannon thinks governments can try persuading pharmaceutical companies to increase production capacity. But he says there are avenues the engineering community could explore, too.

And at a break in the conference, Alan Shaw agrees. He's the CEO of the New Jersey biotech firm VaxInnate.

Alan Shaw: There are a number of other systems under development. None of the are ready for prime time yet, but they are hurrying as fast as they can.

Shaw says firms are working to grow vaccines in insect eggs which are more abundant than poultry eggs. They've also had some success growing vaccines in raw potatoes. But people would have to eat a sack full to get any kind of benefit. Researchers say tomatoes could be more promising.

A pandemic most likely would start in counties like Thailand and Cambodia, in remote locations, so researchers are also looking for ways to create mobile vaccine production units to get the supply closer to those who need it.

Alan Shaw: You know there's probably no perfect solution, but I think we have number of different possibilities in the laboratory and in early development.

While bio-tech engineers try new ways to grow vaccines, Roy Anderson from the University of London says software algorithms could attempt to predict virus mutation, the effectiveness of certain quarantine policies, and track the emergence of a virus from patient information the moment they're admitted.

Roy Anderson: The engineering objective is to give a simulation tool the policy makers can use to guide their inferences of what are the best polices to introduce in week one, day one, week three. And what I say is the tools are available to do this at a very sophisticated level.

While computer software can be commissioned, Patrick Scannon believes the pharmaceutical industry will have to be persuaded to explore novel approaches to vaccine production. Then, it'll take time to establish new regulations. Conferences like the one a Case are a start in a unique partnership between the pharmaceutical industry and engineering fields. Its just one of the new strategies to get ahead of the next global pandemic.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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