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UPDATE 1-Novartis taps Craig Venter for faster flu shots

* Technology may cut flu vaccine production time by 2 months

* Novartis working with Synthetic Genomic Vaccines Inc

* Genome pioneer Craig Venter is behind SGVI

(Adds details, background)

By Katie Reid

ZURICH, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG NOVN.VX is working with genome pioneer Craig Venter in the hope the controversial field of synthetic genomics will help it to produce flu vaccines more quickly.

The new technology, which involves computer-designed and laboratory-created genomes, could help Novartis shave two months of the time required to produce vaccines -- a critical advantage when companies are racing to fight pandemics.

The drugmaker has struck a deal with Synthetic Genomics Vaccines Inc, a company recently set up by Synthetic Genomics Inc and Venter’s J. Craig Venter Institute to develop a bank of synthetically constructed seed viruses, Novartis said.

These viruses would be ready to go into production as soon as the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies the flu strains.

The swine flu pandemic highlighted the importance of being able to get vaccines to people quickly and prompted the U.S. government to change the way it works with companies to fight new disease threats, such as from flu. [ID:nN19258567]

It takes months to make a vaccine against influenza using current processes.

Novartis and other vaccine makers, such as GlaxoSmithKline GSK.L, Sanofi-Aventis SASY.PA and AstraZeneca AZN.L have to wait on the WHO to identify and distribute live reference viruses to create seasonal or pandemic vaccines.

Venter grabbed headlines earlier this year when he said his J. Craig Venter Institute had taken a key step towards creating synthetic life by using an artificially synthesised genome to bring back to life a bacterium that had its genetic material scooped out.

U.S. President Barack Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to study the potential medical, environmental and security benefits or risks of the technology and address the ethical and environmental issues linked to it. (Editing by Karen Foster)

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