WHO flu chief leaves for Novartis
Klaus Stöhr, former head of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Global Influenza Programme, stepped down this month to take a position with Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, leading the company's development of seasonal and H5N1 influenza vaccines.
At the WHO, Stöhr was known as a visible advocate of developing vaccines against the H5N1 strain of influenza and worked to assemble national policies for surveillance and preparedness against a flu pandemic. Because of Stöhr's efforts, "the imperative of having to develop a better influenza vaccine for seasonal flu and a vaccine for pandemic flu is on the front burner," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Scientist. "He got the ball rolling," Fauci said.
A spokesperson at the WHO said there has not been a direct replacement for Stöhr's position. Albert Osterhaus, virology professor at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and director of the WHO National Influenza Centre, told The Scientist Stöhr's decision to go private won't mute his contributions to global flu preparedness. "There's nothing wrong with going into the private sector," Osterhaus said, "and much more [effort] should be going into public-private partnerships, because the private sector is going to be developing the vaccines."
Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, a division of Novartis, was formed in 2006 after Novartis acquired Chiron. Although Chiron contributed to an international vaccine shortage crisis in 2004, Novartis has become a major player in global vaccine development. Last week, the company announced that it received a $55 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services to develop the adjuvant MF59 --which enhances the immune response to influenza vaccine -- for the US market. Eric Althoff, spokesperson for Novartis, said 27 million doses of vaccine with MF59 already have been successfully administered in Europe.
Althoff told The Scientist one reason Stöhr joined the company stems from Chiron's work with flu cell culture technology. "It's the first new technology in flu vaccine in more than 50 years. It's moving out of the chicken egg," Althoff said. Efforts to reach Stöhr for comment were unsuccessful.
Stöhr is not the first public leader to move into the private sector. Last year Mahendra Rao, who led the stem cell division at the National Institute on Aging, left for Invitrogen's stem cell and regenerative medicine division. Rao's move was prompted by the US government's refusal to fund new stem cell lines, and triggered negative reactions among his colleagues.
Stöhr's transition appears less upsetting to the influenza community. "I think it's very good news, [Stöhr] moving from public to private," John Oxford, professor of virology at St Bartholomew's in London, told The Scientist. Oxford added that there's a major upside to Stöhr's departure from the public realm: "When this outbreak comes, we'll all benefit from a load of vaccine sitting there."
Links within this article:
World Health Organization Global Influenza Programme
N Stafford, "EU underprepared for flu," The Scientist, November 2, 2004.
D Wilkie, "The Chiron case: Good manufacturing practice gone bad," The Scientist, March 14, 2005.
I Ganguli, "Flu vaccines: looking beyond eggs," The Scientist, March 31, 2006.
K Pallarito, "NIH stem cell chief resigns," The Scientist, April 21, 2006.