'We don't have the resources to produce swine flu vaccine here'

HU Med. school professor: Project would not be economically viable unless Israel were able to sell it.

vaccine shot 88 (photo credit: )
vaccine shot 88
(photo credit: )
Israel has the know-how to develop and mass produce a safe vaccine against H1N1 and other viruses, but such a national project would require major investment in infrastructure and personnel, plus at least three years of preparation, according to a leading Jerusalem virologist. Prof. Amos Panet of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that such a project would not be economically viable unless Israel were able to market such a vaccine around the world. Making vaccines, especially those against the flu, is increasingly unprofitable, and many international pharmaceutical companies have opted out for this reason. Only half a dozen of them still produce vaccines. Infrastructure would have to be built, said Panet. "I was in China, and they work incredibly well and in an organized manner. They could produce the infrastructure for mass production of vaccine in three years. But when I remember how slowly and badly we have been building Jerusalem's light railway, I wonder whether we could do it as well as the Chinese," he said. "The fact that there is no vaccine industry here is a major failure. The government doesn't think in the long term. They put out fires. Such an industry could begin as a startup using the high-level scientists that we do have - but without the means to initiate such a startup, such an industry will not exist." It is not difficult to produce a flu vaccine, even against H1N1, he continued, as "the World Health Organization issued a warning in May and supplied virus samples to companies that wanted to work on it. The Teva pharmaceutical company used to have a company named Mabat that produced veterinary vaccines and drugs, but it sold it to another company, which is small." There were reports on the Knesset Channel Sunday that the half-secret Ness Ziona Biological Research Institute was "working on H1N1 virus," but it is likely that even if the institute is working on it, staffers are only producing small amounts on an experimental basis. The problem is that Israel currently lacks the infrastructure for mass production of a vaccine - as well as the fertilized chicken eggs to grow it in. Nearly all eggs sold in Israel are unfertilized eggs, said Panet. Vaccine must be produced in fertilized eggs, which result from the fertilization of hens by roosters before the eggs are laid. Enough roosters would have to be found to "volunteer" for this job. In addition, fertilized eggs are prone to infection with other viruses. An alternative is growing vaccine in chicken cells, but it is not simple, and few companies in the world use cells to produce vaccines, Panet said. Safety of new vaccines has always been a problem. In 1977, Americans got a vaccine against swine flu after 100 million doses were prepared. "Tens of millions of people were vaccinated, and some people died as a result, while others suffered side effects. Looking back, it seems to be a shame that they vaccinated so many," said Panet. Today, he continued, "we have better means to check safety in the lab, on a molecular basis, on rodents and even on primates [monkeys]. I presume [the] H1N1 [vaccine] will be safe, but it is hard to know whether it will be efficacious and protect people from the flu." Recently, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman said he wanted to look into the possibility of Israeli producing H1N1 vaccine for the local population instead of leaving the country dependent on foreign sources. Panet said that even if Israel managed to purchase enough vaccine eventually to inject the population, the vaccine would not be more effective than ordinary seasonal flu vaccine, which protects only about 80 percent of those vaccinated. In any case, the medical school virologist said he was not sure how many Israelis would be willing to roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated with a new product. "They probably would prefer to wait until numerous people got it and then see if there were complications," he said. He recalled that a few years ago, after two elderly people with chronic diseases died after getting vaccinated against seasonal flu, although there was no proven connection to it, the rate of vaccination dropped so low that then-health minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri publicly got his shot during the evening TV news - and even this did not increase the vaccination rates very much. "Not all Israelis will agree to be vaccinated. I wouldn't recommend buying enough doses to cover everybody," Panet said. "We need stock for those at high risk - pregnant women, people with chronic illness and weak immune systems - but not all. "The horrible year of 1918, when many millions of people died of Spanish flu when there was no vaccine, always sticks in our mind, so we prepare for the worst-case scenario. But who would be affected and how many is the great unknown." Panet added that scientists cannot yet explain why H1N1 is hitting younger people and why it is thriving in the hot summer months, unlike seasonal flu, which is most dangerous in the winter, since flu virus is sensitive to heat.