Two years ago, as fears of a SARS pandemic spread, a San Diego biotech company aided by federal dollars speeded a promising vaccine out of the lab and into human testing.
But when Vical Inc. and the government wrap up the 15-person test next year, the drug is expected to end up on the shelf because the dreaded global epidemic never panned out. Bird flu has now passed SARS as the No. 1 feared global death threat.
As biotechnology companies refocus their profit mission to the new threat -- and investors drive stock prices to new highs -- some analysts wonder whether these endeavors could face the same fate Vical met with its rapid response to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
"There are so many unknowables and a lot of hype," said AG Edwards analyst Al Goldman. "The avian flu potential is something that you can't get your arms around because no one knows if -- or when -- a pandemic is going to happen."
The particular bird flu strain that now worries health officials has been around since 1997 and has killed 62 people worldwide since 2003, yet it hasn't acquired the genetic changes it needs to start spreading easily from person to person.
What's more, leading scientists now discount the notion that flu pandemics happen in regular intervals and that the world is overdue for a new one.
They don't even agree on how bad it is that bird flu has spread to more types of birds.
Still, there is scientific consensus that vaccine and drug stockpiles should be created in the U.S. just in case.
To that end, the Bush administration wants $7.1 billion in emergency spending to improve vaccine production systems and to detect and contain a potential pandemic flu strain before it reaches the United States. The U.S. government has awarded a little more than $162 million this year to drug companies developing bird flu vaccines.
The promise of billions more in government support and continued fears that the country was ill-equipped to deal with an impending pandemic have a slew of biotechnology companies jumping into the flu business.
Vical Chief Executive Vijay Samant says his company is among those pursuing a novel flu vaccine despite its SARS experience, which he said has yielded some benefit.
Samant said that federal regulators were now better prepared to handle new viral threats like SARS and that Vical had the ability to restart the SARS project almost immediately if that bug emerged again. Most of the SARS vaccine research costs at Vical were covered by the National Institutes of Health, which reported in September that the experimental vaccine appeared safe -- but little other data about its effectiveness has been produced.
"Don't underestimate the value of learning how to deal with that emerging threat," Samant said. Still, Samant did joke that the "first slide of everybody's" Powerpoint presentation to investors promises to profit from flu fears.
The lion's share of government funding has flowed to the established vaccine makers Sanofi-Aventis and Chiron Corp. The government awarded Sanofi a $100-million contract to crank out a bird flu vaccine and Chiron received $62.5 million, even as the Emeryville, Calif.-based Chiron attempts to overcome manufacturing woes.