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Influenza Vaccine Research and Development

Research on influenza includes studies on molecular virology, how the virus produces disease (pathogenesis), host immune responses, viral genomics, and how the virus spreads (epidemiology). These studies help in developing influenza countermeasures; for example, a better understanding of the body's immune system response helps vaccine development, and a detailed picture of how influenza invades cells aids the development of antiviral drugs. One important basic research program is the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, which is creating a library of influenza sequences; this library should help clarify which factors make one strain more lethal than another, which genes most affect immunogenicity, and how the virus evolves over time.

Research into new vaccines is particularly important, as current vaccines are very slow and expensive to produce and must be reformulated every year. The sequencing of the influenza genome and recombinant DNA technology may accelerate the generation of new vaccine strains by allowing scientists to substitute new antigens into a previously developed vaccine strain. New technologies are also being developed to grow viruses in cell culture, which promises higher yields, less cost, better quality and surge capacity.

A vaccine probably would not be available in the initial stages of population infection. Once a potential virus is identified, it normally takes at least several months before a vaccine becomes widely available, as it must be developed, tested and authorized. The capability to produce vaccines varies widely from country to country; in fact, only 15 countries are listed as "Influenza vaccine manufacturers" according to the World Health Organization. It is estimated that, in a best scenario situation, 750 million doses could be produced each year, whereas it is likely that each individual would need two doses of the vaccine in order to become immuno-competent. Distribution to and inside countries would probably be problematic. Several countries, however, have well-developed plans for producing large quantities of vaccine. For example, Canadian health authorities say that they are developing the capacity to produce 32 million doses within four months, enough vaccine to inoculate every person in the country.