NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 28, 2009

The key to averting the next flu pandemic may be churning in a water-cooler-size tank of peanut-butter-colored muck in New Jersey.  There, Escherichia coli bacteria are growing to produce an experimental vaccine against influenza, says Forbes.

The company running the experiment, VaxInnate, is working on technology that could derive in only six weeks a new vaccine for the H1N1 swine flu.  Then, in the space of a month, it could turn out 2 billion doses -- surpassing the annual production capacity of all flu-shot makers combined.

Alas, this tour de force is still five years away from becoming reality.  But VaxInnate's work underscores the fact that the process of making influenza vaccines is stuck in the dark ages of medical technology, fundamentally unchanged since Jonas Salk injected the first flu shot in 1943, says Forbes.

  • Eggs from hundreds of thousands of chickens are infected with flu virus -- roughly 1 egg for every dose made -- and then purified to make killed-virus vaccine.
  • This method requires four or five months to develop a vaccine once a new strain is pinpointed.
  • For the current swine flu wave, that means, if all goes well, vaccinations would be ready in the fall -- at least for those who need them the most such as doctors and at-risk kids.

Currently, only a handful of companies make flu vaccines and there's no financial incentive to find new methods.  Moreover, the potential profits for these vaccines are not enormous and economists have yet to find a way to pay to prevent a pandemic.

The stopgap solution has been to use government grants to make up for this market failure, says Forbes.  The government aims to have in place within three years the capacity to make 600 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine in six months.

Source: Matthew Herper, "The Flu Vaccine Accelerator," Forbes, May 25, 2009.

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