EVEN as US officials this week awaited the arrival of a sample of the H7N9 bird flu strain from China - typically the first step in making a vaccine - government-backed researchers had already begun testing a "seed" strain of the virus made from the genetic code posted on the Internet.
This new, faster approach is the result of a collaboration among the US government, vaccine maker Novartis and a unit of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which is using synthetic biology - in which scientists take the genetic code of the virus and use it as a recipe to build the virus from scratch. It was an idea born in the aftermath of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, in which production delays and poor-quality seed strain slowed delivery of the vaccine until October, late enough that people were already sick with swine flu.
It has shaved two weeks off the vaccine-making process. It will take five to six months to ramp up production, but even weeks could make a difference in the case of a potentially deadly flu pandemic, said Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA.