Firm has new solution for flu vaccine


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But some experts say, big changes may be needed to make that happen.

For more than half a century, flu vaccines have been produced the same way, by injecting a seed virus into fertilized chicken eggs to let it grow. The virus then multiplies and is eventually purified to produce the vaccine.

On average, one to two eggs are needed to make a single dose, and it's a process that takes about six months. That limitation has some health experts worried about keeping up with a worldwide pandemic.

"The challenge then is to produce enough vaccine for that population, which literally can get into the billions," said Dr. Don Francis.

Francis helped direct the Center for Disease Control's early research into the AIDS virus. He's now consulting with the World Health Organization on fighting potential swine flu outbreaks in the third world.

"Right now we don't have that capability for the whole world. It's a matter of setting up production facilities all around the world that can produce vaccine, usually the standard egg vaccine production system," said Francis.

Like many researchers, Dr. Francis argues the better solution is to shift to a genetically engineered vaccine. So-called cell-culture vaccines have already been developed for a host of other diseases like polio.

In San Francisco, one biotech company Vaxart has been using the technique to develop an oral vaccine for the avian flu.

"It's a straight forward for us to switch traps and develop the technology is the same and develop an H1N1 flu vaccine instead, but we haven't done it yet, so the first step would be to create enough vaccine to test in animals," said Vaxart CEO Mark Backer, Ph.D.

But that kind of shift would require a concerted effort by federal health officials. But there could soon be international pressure as well.

Recent reports suggest the bulk of any new H1N1 flu vaccine would already be promised to wealthy countries because of existing pre-production contracts with major drug manufacturers.

Some health experts believe the potential of leaving large parts of the world vulnerable in a pandemic could be enough incentive to move vaccine production beyond the chicken and the egg.

"I think the only way to get the true volume is to use really effective recombinant modern vaccine production where we can get tens of thousands per liter of material, doses per liter, instead of two doses per egg," said Francis.

The CDC is expected to announce soon what form next year's flu vaccine for next year will take, whether it will include the new version of the HINI strain, or possibly add it as a separate shot.

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