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

Israel has the know-how to develop and massproduce a safe vaccine against H1N1 and other viruses, but such anational project would require major investment in infrastructure andpersonnel, plus at least three years of preparation, according to aleading Jerusalem virologist.

Prof. Amos Panet of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School told The Jerusalem Post onSunday that such a project would not be economically viable unlessIsrael were able to market such a vaccine around the world.

Making vaccines, especially those against the flu, isincreasingly unprofitable, and many international pharmaceuticalcompanies have opted out for this reason. Only half a dozen of themstill produce vaccines.

Infrastructure would have to be built, said Panet.

"I was in China, and they work incredibly welland in an organized manner. They could produce the infrastructure formass production of vaccine in three years. But when I remember howslowly and badly we have been building Jerusalem's light railway, Iwonder whether we could do it as well as the Chinese," he said.

"The fact that there is no vaccine industry here is a majorfailure. The government doesn't think in the long term. They put outfires. Such an industry could begin as a startup using the high-levelscientists that we do have - but without the means to initiate such astartup, such an industry will not exist."

It is not difficult to produce a flu vaccine,even against H1N1, he continued, as "the World Health Organizationissued a warning in May and supplied virus samples to companies thatwanted to work on it. The Teva pharmaceutical company used to have acompany named Mabat that produced veterinary vaccines and drugs, but itsold it to another company, which is small."

There were reports on the Knesset Channel Sunday that thehalf-secret Ness Ziona Biological Research Institute was "working onH1N1 virus," but it is likely that even if the institute is working onit, staffers are only producing small amounts on an experimental basis.

The problem is that Israel currently lacks the infrastructurefor mass production of a vaccine - as well as the fertilized chickeneggs to grow it in. Nearly all eggs sold in Israel are unfertilizedeggs, said Panet.

Vaccine must be produced in fertilized eggs, which result fromthe fertilization of hens by roosters before the eggs are laid. Enoughroosters would have to be found to "volunteer" for this job. Inaddition, fertilized eggs are prone to infection with other viruses.

An alternative is growing vaccine in chicken cells, but it isnot simple, and few companies in the world use cells to producevaccines, Panet said.

Safety of new vaccines has always been a problem. In 1977,Americans got a vaccine against swine flu after 100 million doses wereprepared.

"Tens of millions of people were vaccinated, and some peopledied as a result, while others suffered side effects. Looking back, itseems to be a shame that they vaccinated so many," said Panet.

Today, he continued, "we have better means to check safety inthe lab, on a molecular basis, on rodents and even on primates[monkeys]. I presume [the] H1N1 [vaccine] will be safe, but it is hardto know whether it will be efficacious and protect people from theflu."

Recently, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman said he wantedto look into the possibility of Israeli producing H1N1 vaccine for thelocal population instead of leaving the country dependent on foreignsources.

Panet said that even if Israel managed to purchase enoughvaccine eventually to inject the population, the vaccine would not bemore effective than ordinary seasonal flu vaccine, which protects onlyabout 80 percent of those vaccinated.

In any case, the medical school virologist said he was not surehow many Israelis would be willing to roll up their sleeves to getvaccinated 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 withchronic diseases died after getting vaccinated against seasonal flu,although there was no proven connection to it, the rate of vaccinationdropped so low that then-health minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri publicly gothis shot during the evening TV news - and even this did not increasethe vaccination rates very much.

"Not all Israelis will agree to be vaccinated. I wouldn'trecommend buying enough doses to cover everybody," Panet said. "We needstock for those at high risk - pregnant women, people with chronicillness and weak immune systems - but not all.

"The horrible year of 1918, when many millions of people diedof Spanish flu when there was no vaccine, always sticks in our mind, sowe prepare for the worst-case scenario. But who would be affected andhow many is the great unknown."

Panet added that scientists cannot yet explain why H1N1 ishitting younger people and why it is thriving in the hot summer months,unlike seasonal flu, which is most dangerous in the winter, since fluvirus is sensitive to heat.