Catherine de Lange, New Scientist Magazine

When news broke in the spring of 2009 of a new strain of flu in Mexico and California, it appeared to take the world by surprise. Yet across the globe several groups of scientists were primed and ready to react. As the flu spread and people began to die of it, these researchers worked together to identify the strain and produced vaccines in double quick time. How did they do it?

Peter Palese, chair of the department of microbiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, keeps around 4,000 strains of influenza in the freezer for just such an occasion. When a new strain arises, his lab will compare it with previous viruses and use animal models to work out how the microbe is transmitted.

You need to be tenacious in these initial stages, says Palese, until you understand how dangerous the pathogen is. This means research has to take place in high-containment facilities, which can make work cumbersome and slow the process down. Palese's lab, one of a small number of centers of excellence funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, forms part of a group of specialized laboratories around the world which come together to analyze emerging pandemics.

Others, such as the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in London, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, will work in parallel with them to isolate the new virus as a first step to producing a vaccine. Good communication at this stage is crucial, says John McCauley, director of the World Health Organization's Influenza Center at the NIMR, and regular teleconferences between specialist labs to coordinate their efforts are set up by the WHO.

The next stage is to move toward the production of a virus that can be used as a vaccine. It's at this point that pharma companies are invited in on the discussions, with the aim of finding a way to mass-produce the vaccine.

"All the information is given as soon as possible because everyone is pulling in the same direction," says McCauley.

"There is a group of influenza manufacturers that get together routinely during this strain selection and early vaccine manufacturing time frame," explains George Kemble, vice-president of research and development and general manager of MedImmune Vaccines in California. They share information, typically discussing how the various candidate strains are behaving, whether they are growing well and what other candidates might grow better.

"Certainly, we all compete with each other, but in these early stages there is a lot of very good, open communication among the different agencies and companies to ensure they are making as much vaccine as they can," Kemble says.

Collaboration takes place internationally, although there will be some differences in vaccine development between countries depending on national policy - for example, over whether certain substances are licensed for use as components of a vaccine.

Can scientists get involved in policy decisions too? Yes, says Gary Nabel, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Vaccine Research Center, Bethesda, Maryland, which works to understand how new viruses arise and find ways to respond better next time around.

"Scientists within government make decisions on how government funds should be expended, and on which vaccines and what kinds of preventative measures should be used," he says. A good place for aspiring science policy-makers to start is the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, which has a team dedicated to studying influenza.


If you're passionate about developing a vaccine, you'll need to be committed because it's a tough challenge. Last year, researchers were working through the night "doing whatever they could to ensure that we could make the H1N1 vaccine in a timely manner," says Kemble. Despite the long hours, this can be the most rewarding aspect of creating a vaccine.

"These people were putting their heart and soul into this because they knew that if they came up with a vaccine they would be helping their friends, family and people they didn't even know," Kemble says. "It was a very tiring but fulfilling time to be in the business."

To work in emergency pandemic response, a qualification in immunology or microbiology is the obvious academic background to have, although Palese believes a rigorous grounding in any biomedical science will be helpful, too. Nabel goes one step further: "I would be surprised if you could find any discipline of science that couldn't be somehow matched to a pressing need in vaccinology." His advice is to think about the scope of the problems involved, then see which areas best fit your interests.

Once you are working in the field, it is important to remain open-minded and flexible, says Kemble. The nature of infectious disease is constantly changing, so researchers need to be able to adapt.

"There are a lot of folk who come in with one discipline and find themselves working on something completely different a few years down the line because it fired up their passion," he says. And although working in a crisis environment can be difficult, the benefits of success can be far-reaching. "A stunning thought is that the work of a relatively small group of scientists can save the lives of so many people," says Kemble. "You take basic knowledge and you relate it to problems that really have a huge impact on people's lives."


If developing vaccines isn't for you, you might prefer to tell everyone about them instead. Karen Robinson, director of public relations at MedImmune Vaccines in California, explains what a job in communications entails.

"It was a very frightening time for many people. Nobody knew what the pandemic was going to do or how it was going to behave," says Robinson, recalling the uncertainty surrounding the recent H1N1 outbreak. Following the first infections in Mexico, the virus seemed to be spreading fast and the stories about it even faster.

For communications specialists like Robinson, who were at the center of the media storm, it was a once-in-a-career event, one that put all their capabilities to the test. "Coming into work that Monday, it just kicked into high gear. It was pretty much non-stop, hectic activity for the next eight months," she says.

MedImmune adopted a novel approach to vaccine development, working on a live nasal spray vaccine -- which also proved to be the first H1N1 vaccine made available to the public in the U.S. -- when other manufacturers were developing injectable vaccines based on deactivated virus. As a result, there was a lot of media interest in the company's work. Robinson not only had to keep the media up to speed with MedImmune's progress, she also had to monitor the ensuing coverage, prepare scientists and spokespeople for public meetings and be the first port of call for the press.

"It was a constantly changing landscape," she says.

Connecting the media with top scientists is exciting, says Robinson. To do that well, it's important to understand the science involved, although a science background isn't a prerequisite as researchers are usually only too happy to explain their work. "It's rewarding to have a level of scientific education straight from some great minds."

A key challenge for anyone wanting to join a communications team is to convey a sense of balance. For example, while many companies were having trouble harvesting their vaccine, MedImmune was achieving a high yield, but its production was limited by the number of sprayers they could secure.

"As much as we had a great story to tell, we needed to make sure that balance came through as well," says Robinson.


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