NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 4, 2009

A day after the World Health Organization upgraded the swine flu to a "pandemic threat" level, the nation's pharmaceutical industry warned that a vaccine to protect against the virus could still be at least three to six months away.  The biggest obstacle is the egg-based technology used to develop all flu vaccines in the United States, says Devon Herrick, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

This 1940s technology involves growing the virus in chicken eggs, then harvesting it into vaccines.  Not only is this a time-consuming process, but the quantity of the vaccine produced is limited to the egg's volume. 

Complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. vaccine process was already gearing up to treat a different strain of the flu, says Herrick:

  • At the beginning of each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tries to predict what new virus strains will hit the United States 9 to 12 months later.
  • To do this, the CDC looks at flu strains that have already impacted Asia; once the agency agrees on a strain, commercial scale production begins in March for market availability in late September to October.
  • That process had already started when the swine flu (H1N1 virus) struck Mexico; now the 2 strains will compete for the limited resources manufacturers have to develop seasonal vaccines.

But the roadblocks to speedy production don't end there, says Herrick:

  • Only six companies last year manufactured flu vaccines and on average it costs about $700 million to bring a vaccine to market.
  • Yet, the H1N1 outbreak might overburden the already fragile vaccine supply.
  • If it is contained quickly, the manufactures will be stuck with an oversupply.

To mitigate circumstances like this occurring again, the United States should consider a cell-based technology used in Europe that could cut vaccine development time to 13 weeks from its current 24 weeks, says Herrick.

Source: Parija B. Kavilanz, "Don't wait around for new flue vaccine,", April 30, 2009.

For text:


Browse more articles on Health Issues