Butantan Institute, an organization connected to the Secretariat of Health of the State of São Paulo, in southeastern Brazil, is going to produce a vaccine against avian flu using Brazilian technology that grants greater efficiency, productive capacity and a cost reduction when compared to the technology used by other countries.
According to professor Isaías Raw, president of Butantan Foundation, the vaccine should be ready for large-scale application in humans in 180 days at the most.
What guarantees this differential to the Brazilian product is the use of an adjuvant, developed by the Butantan over three years of research, which increases the efficiency and reduces the volume necessary for safe immunization.
In this case, it is a component called Monophosphoryl Lipid A (MPLA), one of the products in the development of the whooping cough vaccine.
According to Raw, vaccines against avian flu developed to date show little efficiency, with up to 10 doses being necessary to immunize a person.
"But the addition of this adjuvant increases the activeness of the vaccine by around four times, which permits the expansion of the production capacity and price reduction," he said.
That is, it makes the use of just one quarter of the quantity of the vaccine necessary to reach the same immunizing effect.
Butantan has in its laboratories two strains of the avian flu virus, one originally from Vietnam, supplied by the British Institute for Biological Standards and Technology, and another from Indonesia, sent by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta, United States.
The latter has shown itself more efficient. Butantan is one of the five centers for vaccine production that the World Health Organization (WHO) has chosen for its task force to fight the disease all around the world.
Raw pointed out that, apart from these strains, the institute is not going to need any more imported inputs for the production of the vaccines, as not only is the adjuvant developed in Brazil, but chicken eggs are used in production of the vaccine, and the country is a great producer of eggs. "We are in an extraordinary position with regard to vaccine production," stated the professor.
Apart from that, the Butantan is finishing construction of a flu vaccine factory, not just avian flu, with a capacity for production of around 40 million doses a year, which should be ready up to the end of April.
For the time being, the development of the vaccine against avian flu will be made in a small pilot factory. The idea is for the vaccine to be tested on mice and then on people in up to 90 days.
According to Raw, up to 100,000 doses should be produced for storage. "The intention is to use them on people who have been in contact with contaminated people," he said. That is, the vaccines will not be used to vaccinate the population in general, but to face the threat of a pandemic.
According to the WHO, three conditions are necessary for the birth of a pandemic: the birth of a new subspecies of the flu virus, the possibility of it affecting humans and causing severe illness, and its easy spread among human beings.
The fist two conditions are already present, according to the WHO, as virus H5N1, which causes the disease, is new with regard to infecting humans and causes a high level of mortality.
Just to give an idea, the organization states that of the 277 cases registered all around the world since 2003, 167 resulted in death. The countries affected to date are Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Nigeria, Turkey and Vietnam. Djibouti, Egypt and Iraq are Arab countries.
The only condition lacking is the transmission from human to human, as up to now the virus has only been transmitted from birds to humans. But the risk of this occurring is serious, as each case of human infection from birds, according to the WHO, increases the possibility of the virus expanding its transmission among humans.
The economic consequences are also grave. In Egypt, for example, where there have already been 23 cases, which resulted in 13 deaths, the government decided to prohibit the raising of chickens and opened the market for imports.
In this sense, Raw stated that the fact that Brazil has a capacity to produce vaccines not only against avian flu, but also against other kinds of flu, is extremely important, as the production is currently concentrated in the countries of the Northern Hemisphere.
"Having competence to produce the vaccine is strategically important," he said. According to him, the Brazilian vaccine may be used by Brazil, by other Latin-American countries, and by "those who need it most".
According to the professor, the vaccine stocked by the United States, for example, may only be used by rich countries, as it is very expensive.
"Our intention, in turn, is to make a vaccine that governments in general may pay for," he declared.
"It would be ideal for the world to be more aware, to choose, for example, 10 places to stock the product and not just wait for the pandemic to knock on the door," he concluded.
Established in 1901, Butantan Institute is a biomedicine research center responsible for over 80% of the production of serum and vaccines in Brazil, according to information supplied by the organization itself.
It is renowned for its research on poisonous animals and for the production of serums against bites by these animals. The organizations’ collection of serpents, that may be visited, counts on 54,000 animals.
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