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Also, the virus on which the swine flu vaccine is based was found to reproduce very slowly in eggs -- much more slowly than the ordinary flu virus. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who on Wednesday was grilled about the delays by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the problem has been fixed.
The U.S. government is funding newer technologies that hold the promise of a more reliable and expandable vaccine supply.
"We need a man-to-the-moon effort for flu vaccine if we don't want to find ourselves in the same position in the future," Osterholm said.
Flu vaccines are not nearly as profitable as other kinds of drugs, and most of the biggest vaccine makers have little incentive to switch from a method with which they are familiar.
At its two plants in the Pocono Mountains town of Swiftwater, Sanofi Pasteur, the top U.S. supplier of seasonal vaccine, is churning out more than 75 million doses of swine flu vaccine and 50 million doses of the winter flu variety.
Sanofi spokeswoman Donna Cary said egg-based production of flu vaccine is "tried and true" and will probably remain the dominant method for years to come.
"If it weren't for the egg-based process, we wouldn't be able to respond to this pandemic," she said.
More than 30 farms in the eastern United States are under long-term contract to provide eggs for vaccines, tending 9 million to 12 million chickens.
Once the fertilized eggs arrive at the vaccine plant, the flu virus is injected into them and allowed to multiply for several days. Then the eggshells are cracked; the virus-laden fluid is extracted, the flu virus is killed and the substance is purified. The inactivated strain is tested to determine purity, potency and yield.
From start to finish, the process takes about six months. In normal years, that is usually enough time to get the vaccine to anyone who wants it. But in an all-out epidemic, egg-based production is incapable of producing huge batches quickly.
The government has awarded a $487 million contract to Novartis for a plant in North Carolina that will make flu vaccine by growing the virus inside animal cells, preferably from mammals. The plant is expected to be up and running by 2011 or 2012.
Also, Protein Sciences Corp. of Meriden, Conn., landed a five-year, $147 million contract to develop a vaccine using its recombinant technology -- flu proteins grown in insect cells. The hope is that the first doses would be available within 12 weeks of the beginning of a pandemic. That is about twice as fast as flu vaccine produced from eggs.
"I think you're going to see these new technologies come on board rapidly, especially given what's happened this year," said Paul Radspinner, president and chief executive of FluGen Inc., a Madison, Wis., company working on several new vaccine technologies of its own.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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