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By Richard Asinof
PROVIDENCE – An analysis of the new strain of what’s being called Shanghai bird flu, known as H7N9, conducted by Dr. Anne S. De Groot and her team of researchers at EpiVax Inc., has concluded that there may be a need to develop a new vaccine to combat a potential devastating outbreak of the disease.
In addition, De Groot and her EpiVax team have developed recipes for both DNA-based and protein-expression vaccines that they are willing to share with global and federal health authorities. The company’s work is focused on the viral coat and the internal proteins of the H7N9 virus.
There are two distinct sources of worry about the new strain, according to De Groot, who is chief science officer, founder and CEO of EpiVax, a Knowledge District-based biosciences firm that has pioneered the technology of immunoinformatics to design and manufacture vaccines.
The first is the likelihood that the new flu outbreak may be related to a massive pig die-off in March in China, suggesting that the flu already may have migrated from a mammalian host.
“Everyone is calling H7N9 a bird flu, because this particular strain was found in poultry market and pigeons,” she said. Despite the reports by Chinese authorities that it doesn’t seem to be spreading from humans to humans, De Groot expressed worry that the flu outbreak could be linked to serious pig die-offs in China, with a mammalian signature. “When you hear of a massive pig die-off, with pig carcasses flowing down the river to Shanghai, overflowing from the pig cemeteries upstream, it suggests something very virulent, such as pig influenza outbreak,” she said.
De Groot cited a story by Laurie Garrett of The Denver Post, who reported on April 7 that 16,000 pig carcasses had reached Shanghai by March 20 along the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River. Hundreds of miles west of Shanghai, pig carcasses also washed up along the shores of Xiang River in Changsha – along with thousands of dead ducks.
“One very plausible explanation is that the H7N9 virus has undergone a mutation — perhaps among spring migrating birds,” Garrett wrote. “Once influenza adapts to pig cells, it is often possible for the virus to take human-transmissible form. That’s precisely what happened in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu, which spread around the world in a massive, but thankfully not terribly virulent, pandemic.”
The second major concern voiced by De Groot about the need to move quickly to develop a flu vaccine is that Epivax’s analysis showed that cross-protection from previous flu vaccines used during the last few years may not stimulate defenses against the new strain.