Monday, November 07, 2005 | When Maurizio Zanetti, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, came into his office on Tuesday, his first visitor was a fresh-faced young researcher named Robert Johnson. The young scientist was brandishing a newspaper clip that announced a plan by President Bush to make available $7.1 billion in federal aid to help avoid a massive flu pandemic.

Johnson, who had just been hired by UCSD to research flu vaccines, had a huge grin on his face.

He wasn’t the only one. As the federal plan was announced, San Diego’s biotech industry pricked up its collective ears.

The plan potentially makes available $800 million for the development of new treatments and vaccines. That’s great news for a number of San Diego research institutions and biotech companies. For individual researchers in the field of infectious diseases in San Diego, the federal government’s plan represents something of a carrot in front of a horse – an incentive to move more of their research towards the study of the flu virus.

“The thing about San Diego is that we’ve got such a diversity of biotech research and development operations here that we’re able to shift our focus when things like this come up,” said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom, a local life science industry association.

“There’s always going to be some number of companies that can focus on this area,” he added.

That means companies like Vical, a La Jolla-based researcher and developer of biopharmaceutical products.

Vical, which develops DNA vaccines for infectious diseases, stressed that much now depends on how the federal money is doled out. That will probably be a long, drawn-out process, during which companies will have to convince the powers that be of the viability of their products.

For Vical, that means selling the benefits of its DNA vaccines over research on vaccines using cell cultures. Vical has been working on its products for years, and is in the position to offer the government something they can potentially use, rather than starting from scratch. That’s what company employees think gives them the edge.

“Until you have something to pitch to them,” said Alan Engberg, executive director of investor relations at Vical, “you’re not in the position to extract some of that money.”

Another local company that’s in that position is Quidel, a Sorrento Valley developer of rapid diagnostic tests for medical conditions and illnesses.

“We’re well aware of the plan,” said Debbie Feinberg, director of worldwide marketing at Quidel, “and the CDC’s reference to rapid diagnostic tests, and we will continue to have a dialogue with them … and the possible role that rapid diagnostics will have with flu.”

Panetta said San Diego is already one of the leading regions in the country for attracting federal funding through the National Institutes of Health and other sources. He said the flu pandemic plan and the funding it is freeing up reminds him of another federal plan, BioShield, which President Bush signed into law on July 21.

BioShield, which was first proposed in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, will eventually free up $5.6 billion over 10 years for the purchase of vaccines and counter-measures against lethal agents like anthrax and smallpox. San Diego-based companies and research institutions are likely to get a good chunk of that money, particularly La Jolla’s Burnham Institute, which is home to a new Center for Research on Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases.

On the whole, San Diego’s large research institutions are not holding their breath when it comes to the potential funding that will come out of the Bush proposal. Although the Salk Institute and the Scripps Research Institute both do research into infectious diseases, spokesmen for each institute said they do not focus on the flu virus in their work.

The Burnham Institute is developing a focus on anti-influenza inhibitors. That will build upon the organization’s research on other pathogens, including West Nile virus, bubonic plague, SARS and anthrax.

Such research is not dependant on an increase in federal funds, however.

“We have elements of this research already in place. We’re pursuing that avenue independent of whether or not Congress is able to appropriate additional funding,” said Nancy Beddingfield, a spokeswoman for the Burnham Institute.

“Additional funding certainly never hurts,” she added.

Apart from large companies and research institutions, individual infectious disease and immunology researchers in San Diego have been heartened by the news that the government has acknowledged the importance of their work and is attempting to make more funds available for them.

“This is a recognition from them that this is really not something that we can let pass,” said David Lo, a researcher into flu vaccines at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology. “This just amplifies more on the concerns that people have that we have to get prepared and we have to find new ways to address mass immunization around the world.”

That means listening to people like Lo, who already works using funding from the NIH but nevertheless has been studying the government’s proposal to see what funding might become available to researchers like him.

For those researchers who are already well-funded, Lo said, the announcement by President Bush has more importance in terms of informing the public about the importance of the work they are doing than in terms of the funding it’s making available.

UCSD’s Zanetti agrees.

“Most people don’t know how many people die each year of flu,” said Zanetti. “I think this is going to bring new wind to the sails of this nation.”

For other local scientists, the news from the White House is definitely a lure that may pull them in the direction of research on the flu virus. Antonella Vitiello, a La Jolla-based scientist is one such researcher. As soon as she heard the news, Vitiello put in a few calls to local acquaintances and friends who are working in the field of infectious disease.

“People like me, that have been interested in developing new approaches to the treatment of infectious diseases for a long time, can see this as a great opportunity,” said Vitello. “I’m going to be trying to convince my colleagues that this is a worthwhile area – because there is money there.”

Details of the government’s pandemic flu plan can be found at

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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