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Researchers Begin Work on Vaccine for Mystery Illness

Federal researchers are beginning work toward a vaccine that could eventually help control the mystery illness that has spread from Asia to North America and killed at least 85 people

The research on a vaccine is just getting under way at the National Institutes of Health, but officials said Friday they are already trying to interest industry in producing a vaccine based on the results.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say they are 90 percent sure the mystery illness, dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a new form of the coronavirus, a cause of the common cold. Researchers are moving ahead on that assumption.

If it turns out that some other virus is at work, those researchers will have to start again, cautioned Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Even under the best-case scenario, he said, a vaccine is at least a year away.

On Friday, President Bush gave health officials authority to quarantine Americans sick with the highly contagious virus, though officials had no immediate plans to use the emergency powers. His executive order adds SARS to the list of diseases for which health authorities have authority to involuntarily hold Americans, the first time a disease has been added to the list in two decades. "If spread in the population," the order says, SARS "would have severe public health consequences."

Meanwhile, in China, officials issued an extraordinary apology for not doing a better job of informing people about SARS. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said he spoke with his counterpart in China on Friday and they pledged to cooperate in battling the outbreak.

Investigation into the disease's origins continued. International health officials were seeking the first person believed infected with SARS, a man in the hard-hit southern province of Guangdong.

Although the cause of SARS has not been definitely determined, federal officials were pressing ahead with work on a vaccine.

"People are taking this unbelievably seriously," said Dr. Brian Murphy, co-chief of the laboratory of infectious diseases at the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

In a conference call Thursday, officials from the NIH, CDC and Food and Drug Administration discussed the issue with representatives of more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies and there are plans for another meeting as soon as next week. Fauci said he expects Thompson will reach out directly to industry as well.

"It's apparent to us we do need and should engage industry early on in the process," Fauci said in an interview Friday.

SARS, whose symptoms include fever, aches, cough and shortness of breath, has killed at least 85 people in Asia and Canada and sickened at least 2,300 in more than a dozen nations as infected travelers spread the disease through air travel. In the United States, 115 cases in 29 states have been reported. On Friday, a woman died of SARS in Singapore, the country's sixth death. New possible cases were reported in Japan and Australia.

About 4 percent of victims have died from the disease. There's no cure yet, but most sufferers are recovering with timely hospital care.

NIH researchers led by Murphy have received samples of the virus and are beginning work to make sure that the cells will grow and replicate so that, eventually, a vaccine can be manufactured in large quantities. They should know this in as little as a week, Murphy said.

Researchers next must concentrate the virus and treat it with a chemical that will deactivate the virus, he said. They also will treat it with a chemical formulation to increase effectiveness of the vaccine, so it will produce more of the antibodies that ultimately protect people who are vaccinated.

Researchers also must conduct animal studies. That means finding a way to effectively infect the animal, and then testing whether the vaccine works to prevent infection.

In the end, they hope to produce a "killed vaccine," one that uses a dead version of the virus.

"This is not a very complicated or sophisticated type of approach to vaccine manufacturing," Murphy said.

If Murphy and his colleagues are able to develop a "proof of concept" that the vaccine works, they hope to turn the research over to private industry to manufacture the product.

"We're trying to provide a framework to motivate them to make a vaccine," Murphy said. "If we can show it works, they'd be more inclined to go ahead. ... We need to get the manufacturers interested, primed and thinking along these lines."

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