If you can get Legionnaire’s Disease from just walking past a hot tub, you can get the flu from looking at the pigs at a county fair–and some people did. The CDC reports that four people attending an Indiana county fair this month came down with flu traced to the pigs there.
However, it’s a strain of flu that doesn’t pass easily from person to person, so medical officials aren’t worried about a new epidemic.
But what if it start off an epidemic–or even a pandemic? the event of a global and highly lethal flu pandemic, we’ll create millions of vaccines as soon as possible–which would be hard to do with conventional methods. Darpa wants to solve this potential problem by genetically engineering plants that can produce the vaccines. Their goal is to be able to produce 10 million doses of a plant-based H1N1 influenza vaccine a month.
The standard method of creating flu vaccine involves combining the virus with a chicken embryo inside an egg. It would take nearly a billion eggs just to cover the US alone. But plant-based vaccines are developed using particles which resemble viruses on a genetic level but are non-infectious. To produce the particles, scientists synthesize the DNA of the flu virus, combine the flu DNA with bacteria, and then soak the plants with it. After soaking for a few minutes, the plants then start producing the flu-fighting particles. Those particles then become the basis for a vaccine.
The most popular plant to do this with turns out to be tobacco, because it grows quickly. And we produce 450 metric tons of this a year, most of it still subsidized by the government, even though the government ALSO sponsors anti-smoking messages (this reminds us of the recent pushing of corn in ethanol production, even though other plants work better. Before the recent drought, we had tons of subsidized corn rotting away in warehouses).
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