Virionyx to market anthrax vaccine to US

By Kent Atkinson

South Auckland-based biotech company Virionyx has teamed up with an American company with an eye to selling the US Government a treatment for people infected by the bioterrorism weapon anthrax -- at US$5000 ($7272) a dose.

The vaccine, called Trithrax, is composed of a cocktail of antibodies produced by immunised goats, and attacks deadly toxins that remain in the bloodstream after antibiotics have been administered.

Virionyx has formed a joint venture with New York company Zeptometrix Corp and executives from the two companies will go to Washington on December 7 to pitch to the US Government.

Virionyx has used a process to create the vaccine which parallels the manufacture of emergency treatments for snake and spider bites, in which patients are injected with sheep antibodies.

Trithrax has cleared initial clinical trials and is poised to begin a second round, pending adequate funding. Before teaming up with Zeptometrix, Virionyx was one of the showcase firms of NZ biotech, but spent large parts of the past 18 months in upheaval.

In late 2003, it lost its directors, chief financial officer and auditor, and disclosed a cash crisis despite having raised more than $12 million in public offers in 2002 and 2003, and a reported total of $30 million from investors.

Chinese President Hu Jintao was hosted by Prime Minister Helen Clark at the company's laboratories in 2003 to witness New Zealand's biotech capabilities, particularly its prospective Aids drug, HRG214.

HRG214 and Trithrax exploit the fact that goats have better immunity to some micro-organisms than humans.

Scientists believe goats' immune systems detect parts of a virus or a bacteria that human bodies cannot see, and produce strong antibodies.

The new joint venture, Buckler Biodefence Corp, is looking for public and private sources for the US$2 million ($2.9 million) and US$4 million ($5.8 million) needed for the next testing phase, said company president Christopher Collins, who is also chairman of Zeptometrix.

Funding the trials will be among the topics of the company's December 7 meeting, arranged by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, with more than two dozen scientists from the US Government's Health and Human Services Agency.

"Ultimately, we want them to buy the vaccine, whether we get the funding from them or not," Mr Collins told Business First, a Buffalo newspaper.

Four years after the September 11 attacks using hijacks planes, terrorist use of disease agents to inflict mass casualties has increasingly become the main American concern over domestic terrorism.

Tom Ridge, former homeland security secretary, has said authorities don't believe terror groups can build nuclear bombs, and so bioweapons are regarded a the greater threat.

This fear is reflected in the US budget with spending on civilian "biodefence" climbing 18-fold since 2001, to US$7.6 billion ($10.5 billion) this year.

Project Bioshield, to develop bioterrorism countermeasures, awarded its first contract last November, US$877 million ($1.27 billion) for 75 million doses of a another new anthrax vaccine.

- NZPA

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