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Health expert casts doubt over origins of swine flu.

CAIRO: Public health and emerging diseases expert Leonard Horowitz accused scientists from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) in England of lab-generating the H1N1 virus for profit.

Horowitz accused James S. Robertson, principal scientist in the Division of Virology at NIBSC; Ruben O. Donis, CDC Influenza's branch director; and Rick Bright, Novavax's vice president of Global Influenza Programs, of helping Novavax Inc. produce genetically-modified recombinants of the avian, swine, and Spanish flu viruses, H5N1 and H1N1, nearly identical to the unprecedented Mexican virus "to promote the company's new research and huge vaccine stockpiling contracts."

"The virus is genetically different from the fully human H1N1 seasonal influenza virus that has been circulating globally for the past few years; it contains DNA typical to avian, swine and human viruses, including elements from European and Asian swine viruses," Horowitz said.

"No other group in the world takes H5N1 Asian flu infected chickens, brings them to Europe, extracts their DNA, combines their proteins with H1N1 viruses from the 1918 Spanish flu isolate, additionally mixes in swine flu genes from pigs, then 'reverse engineers' them to infect humans," he added.

According to Horowitz, an award-winning Harvard-trained expert, the viruses reached Mexico via the United States from Britain through CDC.

"Ruben Donis at the CDC had to have sent them to Novavax," he said.

Horowitz said that during a meeting in April 2006 discussing the standardization of influenza vaccines on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO), "it was disclosed that the NIBSC is involved in the serological testing of vaccine trials; the preparation and distribution of influenza viruses to vaccine manufacturers; and the coordination of EU strain selection."

Participants said that EMEA persuades vaccine makers to bank on pandemics, and "invest in pandemic vaccines with the introduction of mock up files," which is their unassuming way of describing new laboratory engineered influenza viruses also referred to as "biosimilars."

Horowitz is the author of "Emerging Viruses: AIDS & Ebola -- Nature, Accident or Intentional?" in which he casts doubt about the origins of AIDS.

According to Horowitz, Robertson, who is the holder of intellectual property (IP) rights to the genetic technology used to produce the H5N1 and H1N1, "mock up files" used to develop Novavax's vaccine waived his ownership of the technology during the company's research phase.

While some experts refuted Horowitz's allegations, others didn't completely rule out the possibility.

Deconstructing the theory

"Anything can be done through genetic engineering and reverse engineering technologies," said Hussein Ali Hussein, head of the Virology department at Cairo University's faculty of veterinary science.Aa

"These viruses can be created using DNA to produce exact replicas that carries all the characteristics of the viruses; laboratories in US and Canada contain a cocktail of viruses and I know what may happen there," he added.

However, Hussein said that Horowitz's claims might only be a publicity stunt to compete with other pharmaceutical companies who sell drugs and vaccines with billions of dollars.

On the other hand, Gustavo Cruz Pacheco, professor of epidemics at the National University of Mexico, ruled out these allegations saying that these viruses can recombine naturally.

"The Asian flu is more lethal but the swine flu is more contagious, they can recombine and make a virus with both characteristics: lethal and contagious," he told Daily News Egypt.

"The mechanism by which the virus does this, isn't mutation; it is called viral recombination and it is more probable to happen once the swine flu infection reaches Asia," Cruz added.

Mohamed Ali, expert of virology at the National Research Center, said that while it is easy to create an influenza virus and restructure it, the amount of inner changes in the currently spreading strain can't be man-made but occur through natural shifts in the virus.

"This rules out the theory that it is lab-generated," he said.

According to Ali, swine flu has been developing since its first appearance in 1918 with occasional shifts that require new vaccines; then new strains appear with new changes.

"New strains are expected to appear in the coming years; we can't predict their nature or characteristics which is usual for influenza viruses," Ali said.

"We have heard of these claims before but they do not appear to be founded. Evidence strongly points to this being a naturally occurring virus," Gregory Hartl, head of H1N1 Communications Global Alert and Response office (GAR) at WHO, told Daily News Egypt.

"The analysis which has been done points to the fact that we are not dealing with a lab created virus and the virus itself originated from swine," he added.

Vaccine production

Novavax announced last April that it will be ready to mass produce its new vaccine against the swine flu within 12 weeks; while experts say it would take 20--24 weeks to mass produce a vaccine for a new virus.

According to a research paper titled "Strategies for global access to vaccines against pandemic influenza", by Norbert Hehme, chairman of International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, no pandemic vaccines are made available before four months after the outbreak.

"It will currently take two to four years to meet global requirements of 13.4 billion doses of pandemic vaccines; the scale of further capacity increases required to achieve rapid global supply is unrealistic and unsustainable," the paper said

According to Hehme, only vaccines produced prior to an outbreak can address these issues.

Ahmed El-Senoussy, professor of virology at Cairo University's faculty of veterinary science, said that vaccines can be prepared within a three-week period through virus-like particles (VLP) technology, adopted by Novavax, in which viruses are planted with Tobacco Virus inside a plant.

The virus then propagates producing some proteins; after that, the virus is isolated and certain greasy substances are added to it to create virus-like genes that are used to produce the vaccine.

"The current strain has been circulating since 2007 among humans and animals in Thailand and the US, but they began to mutate last December inside pigs, whose special nature allowed seasonal, avian and swine influenza to mutate naturally," El-Senoussy said.

Conspiracy theories

Both Hussein and El-Senoussy cited the use of smallpox virus to infect Native American earlier in the 20th century and similar controversy around the appearance of H1N1 virus in 1977 as well as vaccinia virus used to cure chicken pox.

Adel Abdel-Azim, professor of epidemics at Cairo University's faculty of veterinary science, said the revenues of other drugs like aspirins and antibiotics are much higher than influenza vaccines so the probability of generating the current virus for a drugs' company is unfounded.

"Influenza vaccines lose their effect after two months as viruses start to adapt; besides, the US and China have already produced vaccines," Adel-Azim said.

"Biological wars are supposed to go unnoticed before their results appear after several years; also the current economic crisis isn't a sufficient reason for a company to create a new virus to sell vaccines; in 1918 despite the spread of Spanish flu, people didn't buy vaccines because of economic difficulties," he added.

Precautionary measures

With the probability for the occurrence of such incidents, heavy and strict measures are urgently needed.

However, Brian Nordmann, director of Biological Weapons Affairs at the US Department of State, said that despite the difficulty of accomplishing something like this, there is no specific mechanism to monitor it.

Nordmann told Daily News Egypt that he counts on a level of integrity and trust.

He explained that to create a virus is a long process, difficult to be conducted without anyone noticing.

"Some issues are serious enough that they are investigated by senior officials and the truth is revealed to the media; while others like this one are not given any attention," he added.

Daily NewsEgypt 2009

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Publication:Daily News Egypt (Egypt)
Date:Oct 30, 2009
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