If a flu pandemic breaks out, the last thing the government wants is for people to rush to hospitals and doctors' offices to get vaccinated among lots of already sick people. To prevent such a scenario, a self-administered flu vaccine is being developed that could be mailed out to the masses.
The vaccine, developed by the Infectious Disease Research Institute, will start human trials next month and is designed to protect against H5N1, one of the most deadly strains of bird flu. While H5N1 kills about 80 percent of people who contract it, so far it is unable to spread from person to person.
Scientists started a political firestorm earlier this year after they published a paper proving they could manipulate the virus so that it could spread from ferret to ferret, animals that are often used to model the human immune system.
If H5N1 mutates on its own so that it can be spread among humans, doctors are worried that standard vaccine dispensaries, such as hospitals and doctors offices, will become a prime location at which to contract the disease. So the Infectious Disease Research Institute is using microneedles—a series of tiny needles that can be applied to a patch—to deliver the vaccine. A microneedle vaccine could be easily self-administered.
"The idea is to send it through the mail as a patch that's self-assembled and stable," says Darrick Carter, who helped develop the vaccine. "We could stop people from going to a hospital where there's a bunch of sick people."
Sending a vaccine through the mail could also help keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed during a pandemic. Carter says that during the swine flu pandemic a few years ago, hospitals came close to having to turn patients wanting a vaccine away.
"The idea is the government could stockpile enough of these and we could send them through the U.S. Postal Service come rain or shine or pandemic," he says. "If the swine flu virus had been any more virulent, the healthcare system could have broken completely down."
The vaccine is made using a particle found in tobacco plants. Most current vaccines are made using chicken egg cells, which could become tricky if a bird flu pandemic breaks out. Carter says the virus-like particle in tobacco plants can be quickly changed to adapt to new bird flu strains.
"The response [to a new strain] should be much quicker than egg-based vaccines," he says. "In the case of a bird flu, producing a vaccine using eggs is not the smartest thing to do, because the flu can be lethal to the egg cells."
Microneedles offer another benefit over traditional vaccines: They deliver the vaccine just under the skin, where many of the body's immune-system cells are located. The result is a more efficient vaccine. Carter says that in lab tests, his vaccine creates a wide immune response that could potentially protect against other flu strains.
The Infectious Disease Research Institute's vaccine will be tested in 100 healthy adults starting next month, and if all goes according to plan, the government could have a stockpile ready to go in case of an outbreak within a couple of years, Carter says.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.