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In preemptive strike, NIH to study flu genes

The National Institutes of Health will try to predict the influenza virus's next moves by sequencing genomes for thousands of known human and bird flu viruses -- a project, announced yesterday, that could help researchers understand how the flu constantly evolves. That knowledge could enable the government to blunt future flu outbreaks in a typical year or during a widely feared pandemic that could kill millions.

"Influenza viruses present formidable scientific and public health challenges because they undergo continual genetic changes that enable them to evade the body's immune response and sometimes become more virulent," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, stated in a release. "The project not only provides a valuable resource for current influenza researchers, it also will attract investigators from other fields."

The preparations come in anticipation of the next flu pandemic.

Fauci told reporters yesterday that researchers don't expect that dire predicament this year. The bird flu, while lethal, has not proven agile in leaping from human to human. But a pandemic will eventually strike this nation. "We're due for it," he said.

His comments came during a wide-ranging National Institutes of Health round-table on new developments in influenza research. Scientists are working on such know-how as developing a vaccine that would give long-term flu protection, eliminating the need for annual shots, and speedier ways to produce flu vaccine.

Fauci also said that the company whose flu vaccines were tainted this fall has asked British regulators to inspect its facility that is producing an experimental bird flu vaccine to make sure it doesn't run into the same contamination problems.

Chiron Corp. was to have supplied half of the United States' flu vaccine this year. Its inability to do so was an issue in the presidential campaign, prompted government investigations, sparked a congressional inquiry and raised concerns about its production of the experimental bird flu vaccine. The inspection of its second Liverpool facility, where 10,000 doses of bird flu vaccine are being produced for use in clinical trials, is expected to occur before Christmas.

Chiron is one of two companies producing experimental bird flu vaccine. Aventis Pasteur also has received a federal contract to produce 8,000 pilot lots. More importantly, Aventis scored a government contract to produce 2 million doses of vaccine to treat the strain of bird flu blamed for killing 32 of the 44 humans infected in Thailand and Vietnam this year.

Around the globe, the flu kills up to 500,000 people each year. In the United States, the death toll in a typical year is 36,000, with 200,000 sustaining severe enough infections to be hospitalized.

The biggest global payoff of sequencing the flu genome: learning how bird flu hops with ease from chickens to humans. Global researchers are chilled by the prospect that a human sick with the regular flu could get the bird flu, becoming a human petri dish that allows a new virus to evolve for which there are few treatments.

The H5N1 strain that is racing through Asia, killing dozens of humans and prompting the destruction of millions of birds, constantly mutates. Knowing more about its genetic blueprint would help researchers understand why that strain turned particularly lethal.

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