Steve Connor: Spin doctors in good health

Science Notebook: It is not clear whether Britain has the capacity to produce enough vaccines
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The Independent Online

These are difficult times for government ministers, not necessarily because of their expenses claims but because they face a dilemma over a possible decision on whether to switch the production of flu vaccines away from seasonal flu to the new pandemic strain of H1N1 swine flu. Seasonal flu kills thousands of people each winter so a decision to boost the pandemic vaccine at the cost of the seasonal vaccine might actually lead to more deaths than usual.

So it was good to see that the Health Secretary Alan Johnson was on top of his brief when he visited the laboratories of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) in Potters Bar last week. The NIBSC is run by the Government's Health Protection Agency (HPA) and is responsible for doing the preparatory work on new strains of flu virus prior to the production of a new vaccine.

Mr Johnson announced that the first steps towards producing a European prototype of a swine flu vaccine had been achieved. Scientists at the NIBSC had told him on the morning of his visit that they had sequenced the full genetic code of the virus, according to a press release issued by the Department of Health.

"This is critical in understanding how the virus operates and identifying the crucial parts of the virus that can be used in vaccine manufacture," the press release stated. I was left wondering about the happy coincidence of Mr Johnson's visit happening on the same day that the full viral genetic code had been deciphered.

But then further enquiries revealed that in fact only the virus's partial genetic code had been sequenced. I was also left wondering, if genome sequencing was so critical, how were scientists able to make flu vaccines before the days of being able to fully sequence a virus's DNA? Could it be that the Department of Health's announcement was more to do with making the minister look masterly and decisive, when in fact it is not altogether clear whether Britain has the capacity to produce enough of both seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines.

Out of this world

The mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope is hopefully going to keep this exquisite scientific instrument in fine fettle for another five years or more. In addition to new cameras, batteries and such like, Nasa is also going to fix a grappling hook so that it has the option, in 2014 or beyond, to bring it back to Earth in a shuttle cargo bay, rather than allow it fall unceremoniously into the sea. Don't expect to see it on eBay though.

Heart of the matter

I've been asked about antimatter a lot since the release of Angels and Demons. I can recommend two excellent books; The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, by Graham Farmelo (Faber), and Antimatter, by Frank Close (OUP Oxford).