In 1943, Jonas Salk first injected a chicken egg with flu virus and purified the killed virus to make a vaccine. You may be surprised to learn that very little has changed. Scientists examine virus strains and decide which three new viruses are likely to be the most infectious. Once that determination is made, they inject 90 million chicken eggs with the virus, and then create the virus using the same method pioneered by Dr. Salk. It takes months to develop a new flu vaccine, and in the case of a fast-moving virus like H1N1, waiting for vaccine production can be deadly.
The H1N1 crisis highlighted the need to throw out these antiquated methods and pioneer new, more efficient techniques for vaccine production and the U.S. government has gotten on board to pony up $215 to $375 million in funding. On February 28, 2011, two biotech companies were awarded contracts for the project.
Novavax, Inc., located Rockville, Maryland, will be collecting $97 million over three years with an option to extend for another two. Novavax plans to reengineer the way flu vaccines are developed, with the goal of responding to pandemics in half the time. Novavax has developed three promising technologies for producing recombinant vaccines that will be used as the platforms for development of the new process.
VaxInnate, a company located in Cranbury, New Jersey that specializes in vaccine technology, will receive $117.9 million in the next three years, also with an extended funding option for two additional years. Their proprietary technology platform fuses flu virus with bacterial proteins, a method that the company says will produce vaccines faster and cheaper. In fact, Alan Shaw, VaxInnate CEO, speculates that the company’s new technology could turn out enough vaccines to inoculate billions of people in as little as a month from strain identification to market….which would exceed the current annual production of all flu shot manufacturers combined.
Government funding for this purpose is a huge step forward. If these companies come anywhere near their goals, the production ceiling would be blown off, and potential pandemics stopped in their tracks. It couldn’t come at a better time, either. According to Reuters, researchers in China announced last month that the H1N1 virus is compatible with a bird flu virus commonly found in Asian poultry. These viruses combined have the potential to produce a deadly hybrid virus, more virulent than either strain, that could spread like wildfire. Scientists believe that such combinations of viruses were responsible for the viral outbreak in 1958 that killed 2 million people and another in 1968 that killed 1 million. The prevailing theory is that people who become infected with both viruses at once serve as incubators for the new and more deadly hybrid strain – walking petri dishes. The only question I have is why have we waited so long to take this seriously? Arrogance? Complacency? Denial? What do you think?