Image copyright PA Image caption Covidien CEO Nicholas L. Roelofs
Having spent most of his career in China, where he is nicknamed ‘Jon’, Covidien’s Nicholas L. Roelofs was, as such, more patient than most.
For nearly a year, the CEO of the Basel-based medical technology group refused to wear a mask while visiting China.
So far, the flu vaccination has been a “really good idea, but unfortunately not a very good success”, the scientist said
By “flu vaccination”, he’s referring to a programme, being rolled out in nearly 50 cities around the world, developed in a partnership between the World Health Organisation and the Geneva-based pharmaceutical company.
Under the programme, pharmacists in high-risk areas would be trained to inject the jab into customers’ noses, a process known as nasal immunisation.
Other pharmacies, including chemists, are preparing to vaccinate shoppers from behind the counter with tubes or tweezers, and potentially with drugs.
Mr Roelofs said it made sense to concentrate on the lower risk groups — infants under two, pregnant women, and those in homes with more than 10 people, but he believed the move was “really, really backwards”.
The vaccine works, but it is not enough to stop a swine flu outbreak, he said.
What it will do is create a viral reservoir in people’s bodies, likely to become the next generation of resistant strains, the reason why, in some places, national pandemics come in greater numbers.
First, because people’s immune systems do not work when dealing with flu.
More important, because it does nothing to stop the virus becoming resistant to vaccines.
Now, the technology is good. Third-generation antiviral drugs produced by Chinese biotech Aoxing Pharmaceutical have been used in clinical trials, with limited side effects.
Now they need a marketing licence, which China’s Ministry of Health is working on.
Image copyright PA Image caption Aoxing is to be licensed in China
Illustrating his belief in the vaccination, Mr Roelofs said he wore a mask when he was in China for business visits, not because he was worried about contracting flu — but because he wanted to avoid infections.
He told CNBC that in the long run, China would not get stuck with the same problem as the UK.
For one thing, the British had already prepared for H5N1, the bird flu, he said.
Part of the technology behind the vaccine is nanotechnology, a technology which Mr Roelofs said had only been recognised within the past six months, but which is already being applied in Asia.
It is nanoparticles, as tiny as 5 micrometres across, that allow drugs to pass through the body’s defences, allowing medicine to reach the lungs.
China, the world’s largest producer of medical supplies, could benefit enormously from the new technology if you can make medicine more accessible to rural villagers who live further away from the bigger cities.
In short, said Mr Roelofs, for China, it’s about technology and convenience.
For the person who caught flu, the cure may be the vaccine.