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A $707 million investment in cell-based influenza vaccine

Posted Dec 16 2011 12:00am

novartis-holly-springs-usThe United States has provided a large sum of money to pharmaceutical giant Novartis to produce influenza vaccines grown in cell culture. According to CIDRAP :

Novartis’s US efforts have been spurred by two major federal contracts. In 2006 the firm won a $220 million HHS contract to develop cell-based flu vaccines, and in January 2009 HHS awarded a $487 million contract to help build the Holly Springs facility.

The facility consists of six connected buildings with 430,000 square feet of manufacturing, laboratory, and office space on a 167-acre site, Novartis reported in a news release. The company has about 400 employees there now and plans to expand to 500 by the end of 2012. Power said the facility is expected to be ready for full-scale commercial production in 2013.

Is this a good investment of US science dollars? Consider the following points:

  • A cell-based vaccine is expected to shorten by a few weeks the time required to produce a vaccine for a new influenza virus strain
  • No cell-based influenza vaccine is currently licensed for use in the US
  • Cell-based influenza vaccines use the same technology developed 50 years ago for egg-grown vaccine, with the exception that the virus is propagated in a different host
  • Inactivated influenza vaccine is not very good – it is 59% effective in individuals 18-65 years of age

I suspect that contemporary influenza vaccines produced in eggs or cell culture will be replaced with new vaccines within the next decade. With all this in mind, does it make sense to invest $707 million in a vaccine that has such a short life span? Even more money is at stake – according to CIDRAP, “Novartis is one of five companies that received sizable HHS contracts in 2006 to develop cell-based vaccines.” The new Novartis plant will not be able to supply all the influenza vaccine required by the US (and having a sole supplier is not a good idea). Are there enough individuals with severe egg allergies to justify this investment? Or is this a project that seemed like a good idea in 2006 but is now an anachronism?

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