Just weeks after scientists in Beijing disclosed that migratory birds like geese and gulls are carrying the deadly avian flu all over the world, a British biotech firm has come up with a possible antidote: gold.
PowderMed, based in Oxford, is developing a DNA-based vaccine that works by spraying gold particles coated with avian flu genes directly into human skin with high-pressure helium. In preclinical trials and initial human studies, the method provoked an immunity comparable to that offered by current flu vaccines, says Clive Dix, the PowderMed CEO. More important, circumventing the need for live virus means a faster response in an emergency.
In August the U.S. government ordered millions of doses of a live virus vaccine. But experts worry that typical limitations of such vaccines—short shelf life, rigid refrigeration requirements, an inability to adapt to new mutations—will render the vaccine useless under real-world circumstances. PowderMed’s vaccine requires no refrigeration, lasts for years, and can quickly adapt. Dix estimates that he could produce 150 million doses in three months.
So far only about 100 people have been infected, all after direct contact with domestic poultry in Southeast Asia. The announcement in July that migratory birds were infected prompted concern that the quick-mutating virus would soon be in Australia and Europe. Eventually, the avian flu could acquire the ability to be passed from person to person, sparking a pandemic. “The question now isn’t whether that will happen, it’s when,” says Dix. “And we need to be prepared.”