So the universal vaccine acts on the M2e protein segment, which cannot undergo changes. What are the other advantages of a universal vaccine?
With the universal vaccine we can, just like for polio, give an immunization—and then again, a month later, another immunization, and perhaps a year later another one. You have more possibilities to induce a full-blown immunity.
Would you say that the phase I trial done by Acambis, based in Cambridge, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass., has been successful?
Yes, our technology has been licensed to Acambis, which has done the trial and has published the results in a press release. The results are promising: 90 percent of the vaccinated people were found to be seropositive. But we don't know whether the antibodies that are induced are antibodies that protect. We have done the equivalent trial with ferrets. We can give them a "challenge"—that is, infect them with H5N1, and we found that they were well-protected.
Ferrets are known to mirror what happens to humans. If you give a flu virus to ferrets, they develop an analogous pathology to humans.
What are the plans for a phase II trial?
First, you will have to do the trial with a large number of people. Second, you will have to find an area where there is a large probability that an influenza epidemic will take place. We are thinking of countries from the Southern Hemisphere. We have to be lucky in pinpointing such an area, and it will require the inoculation of thousands of people.
Another possibility, but we are less attracted to this, is giving people a challenge, where one infects people with a virus. Often one can recover from a virus infection. But an induced infection is less convincing than if we would do a real field trial.
In your view, another requirement for a vaccine to stave off a pandemic is that it should be administered via nasal drops?
For me it is clear that if there will be a pandemic, the chance that this happens is not in the rich West, but in the developing world. The first victims will be found in the enormous cities, in the poverty around these cities. We will have to vaccinate these people quickly, and medical workers injecting people is too slow.
The solution is to administer the vaccine nasally; nose drops can be administered by anyone. We have noticed that with intranasal administration with mice we obtain titers [antibody concentration] as high as with intramuscular injection. We expect that this will also work when applied to humans. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
This story was originally printed with the title, "Beating the Flu".