Remote front line in the war on bird fluhttp://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,1604601,00.html
In a small laboratory in a Budapest suburb, scientists are developing a vaccine which could prevent a global pandemicDaniel McLaughlin in Pilisborosjeno
Sunday October 30, 2005
The road from Budapest meanders through forested hills and quiet villages, before reaching a neat yellow building guarded by an old man in a boiler suit and a barking alsatian. This is the unlikely front line in the global war against bird flu.
At this laboratory, Hungary is leading the fight against the H5N1 virus, which has arrived in Europe after killing dozens of people in Asia, and preparing for deadly future forms of an ever-changing disease that could cause a flu pandemic.
Last week the World Health Organisation invited Hungarian officials to Geneva to discuss their vaccine.
Inside Omninvest Ltd's discreet headquarters, the nature of its work becomes apparent. The air smells faintly of disinfectant. Ferenc Zimonyi, director of operations, politely declines requests to photograph wall-mounted plans of the building's layout, and to venture beyond the outer rooms of the facility.
Deep inside, scientists in safety suits with breathing apparatus step through airlocks to the heart of the lab, where the lethal H5N1 virus is bred in hens' eggs before being extracted, concentrated, and turned into Hungary's vaccine.
'We have to apply a high level of protection to everyone dealing with this,' says Zimonyi. 'We were a little afraid of the unknown elements of H5N1. But we gave everyone who works here our vaccine, and trials have shown that it works well.'
Now Omninvest is making about 50,000 doses for London's European Medicines Agency, which tests new medicines for use in the European Union. Hungarian officials also plan to discuss the vaccine project with the World Health Organisation next week.
If Hungary beats bigger nations and pharmaceutical giants to mass production of a bird flu vaccine, the kudos for the nation's scientists would be almost as great as the potential profits. Fear of a bird flu pandemic is tightening its grip around the world.
Hungary says its vaccine is not only powerful against H5N1 - producing four times more antibodies in test subjects than the WHO requires for normal flu vaccines - but, crucially, its method is easily adaptable to fighting mutations.
'When a mutation occurs we would not have to create a new process for making the vaccine,' says Zimonyi. 'We would simply replace H5N1 with the mutated strain and, in eight weeks, we could be producing the new vaccine in industrial quantities.'
So keen was Health Minister Jeno Racz to promote Hungary's bird flu vaccine project that he volunteered to be injected with a deactivated form of the lethal H5N1 virus.
'I felt that if I am convinced that this vaccine is effective, then I could prove this best by trying it on myself first,' he told The Observer.
'The WHO gave a sample of the H5N1 virus to several countries and companies to try and develop a vaccine,' Racz added. 'We haven't heard of anyone who has had the kind of success in tests that we have.'
'It is a race against time,' says Racz, who is resigned to the possibility of losing out on the vaccine's potential profits.
'The WHO and EU can wave a country's exclusive patent to a vaccine in the case of a health crisis,' he says with a shrug. 'If a pandemic looms, humanitarian concerns must override financial questions.'
Threat to Britons is very low, says Patricia Hewitt
The threat to people in Britain of contracting bird-flu is remote, the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said yesterday.
'The World Health Organisation - to whom I spoke only a few days ago - confirmed that the threat to the general population in Britain from bird flu is very, very low indeed,' she said in an interview with the BBC.
Hewitt wanted to reassure people that the chance of picking up the lethal flu-strain, that is currently being found in birds across the world, is minimal. The H5N1 strain is able to jump from bird to human and has taken lives in Asia, but is less likely to take casualties in Britain where people do not live in close proximity to birds and poultry. For a pandemic to take hold, the virus would have to mutate into a form that could jump from human to human.