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Asian Biotech Companies Respond to H1N1 Flu Challenge

  • Heda Bayron

From antiviral drugs to face masks, Asia's biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are helping the global response to H1N1 flu.

Hong Kong company Filligent's product seems to come at the right time. After six years of research and development, it began selling the Biofriend face mask two months ago.

Chief Executive Melissa Mowbray-d'Arbela says the company has been swamped with orders from Mexico and elsewhere in the world where the H1N1 swine flu virus has struck.

"We logged over 200 calls per day and its increasing per day," she said. "We got soft orders of $6 million in sales but … our principal focus is to deal with humanitarian effort, so we are delivering and sending to Mexico as our priority."

As governments around the world activate their pandemic plans to fight H1N1, companies in Asia such as Filligent are filling the demand for drugs and medical essentials.

Mask allegedly kills bacteria including influenza

Unlike other masks, Filligent says its mask kills viruses and bacteria, including influenza A, of which swine flu is a new strain, when they touch the mask's surface.

"The influenza A virus seeks and binds to human cells through sialic acid receptors which are on the outside of human cells," she explained. "What we do is that we fool the virus that it has detected and locked on to the human cell, a sialic acid receptor. We mimic the sialic acid and we forced the virus into locking into our substrate where it then quickly gets killed."

The idea came after Mowbray-d'Arbela developed pneumonia in the middle of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003. Many people in Hong Kong wore masks for fear of contracting the disease.

Few people in Hong Kong are using face masks these days, even though the city reported its first swine flu case last week. But in Mexico, where the virus has been found most often, thousands of people are wearing masks.

Chinese company working on vaccine

Elsewhere in the region, biotech companies are responding to the pandemic threat. The Chinese company Sinovac says it is ready to start working on a vaccine for the swine flu as soon as it receives samples.

Chinese and Indian pharmaceutical companies, which make less expensive generic anti-flu drugs, are also on standby to supply large quantities to governments, particularly in the developing world, that do not have stockpiles of drugs or medical supplies to deal with a flu pandemic.

The Australian company Biota saw its shares rise almost 80 percent last week in anticipation of a surge in demand for antiviral drugs. Biota licenses the anti-flu drug Relenza to the international pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and collects a fraction from sales.

Mexico is the epicenter of the H1N1 flu outbreak. The virus has since been detected in many areas including the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong and Switzerland. The death toll outside Mexico has been low, leading some experts to say the virus may be weaker than previously thought.

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