Although President George W. Bush ’68 announced a sweeping $7.1 billion plan Tuesday to confront the growing threat of pandemic flu, whether Yale will see any increase in funding remains an open question.
Some Yale experts in public health and virology said they praised the Bush administration’s new focus on the threat the flu poses, but they questioned some of the plan details. Bush’s request for funding includes $2.8 billion earmarked for improving cell culture technology, a step towards developing new vaccines to combat flu. But Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, special assistant to the president for biological defense policy, said in a press conference Tuesday that the majority of the money would go to vaccine manufacturers in the private sector.
Some Yale professors said they welcome the development of new vaccines, but they are not sure if the money for such research would be focused in the right places.
“There are those of us interested in vaccine development at the early stages who have been frustrated trying novel approaches that aren’t ready for prime-time,” Peter Tattersall, professor of laboratory medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, said. “The government wants the answer in place and doesn’t realize they’re not there yet. They need to stop rubbing basic research.”
Alison Marquiss, a spokeswoman for Chiron Corporation, an Emeryville, Cal.-based vaccine manufacturer, said Chiron does not have a collaboration with any universities for its influenza vaccine programs, but does for Hepatitis B. She said she doubts universities would receive much of the funding called for by Bush.
“I know they’d be looking at organizations that have already shown expertise in the vaccine field,” Marquiss said.
Yale professors gave different opinions on the University’s ability to meet this standard. Daniel DiMaio, professor of genetics and therapeutic radiology, said no one at Yale has a primary focus in developing influenza vaccines. But John Rose, director of virology at the School of Medicine, works with technologies similar to what could be used to make new, innovative types of flu vaccines.
Rose said his research focuses on modifying VSV, a virus that primarily infects cattle, horses, and pigs, but can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. Rose said he has explored using VSV to create a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 1997, his lab worked on a vaccine for H5N1, the current strain of avian flu that has some experts worried, after an outbreak in Hong Kong, he said. But he said interest in the vaccine faded as the threat of avian flu appeared to recede. Rose said his lab has revived its work on an H5N1 vaccine, but VSV-based vaccines are not yet approved for human use.
Professors working in health-related fields receive government funding as grants from two sources: the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Associate professor Linda Degutis, director of the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness, said this year’s federal budget will include no increase in NIH funding and will actually decrease the CDC’s overall funding, though only some of their funding is used for grants.
But some professors said they were unconcerned if the lion’s share of research funding was aimed at vaccine manufacturers rather than basic science researchers.
“It should go to whoever has the capacity to move things quickly,” Degutis said.
The strategy announcement came as fears mount that the H5N1 strain of avian flu — also called bird flu — might mutate and be able to infect humans, jumping from one person to another and setting off a pandemic or global epidemic on a scale not seen for decades.
The Bush plan includes $251 million to train local responders in foreign countries, an amount some have called insufficient.
“The problem with the plan is that there’s very little money targeted overseas and by its nature something pandemic will be worldwide,” DiMaio said. “What you’d like is to get the pandemic in the mud, when it’s small.”
Despite their criticisms, professors said the focus on flu is well-advised.
“You’re not going to hold off an epidemic with standard methods if you have a fast-spreading virus,” Rose said. “Its’ a minimum of six months to produce enough and I think the capacity is very limited anyway.”