Speeding up the Process
Vaccine production delays had a major impact on the response to H1N1 last fall. Early estimates were very optimistic, and by October, when flu season began to peak in the United States, health officials had to explain that vaccine production goals would not be met. This also resulted in federal health officials recommending that high priority groups be at the front of the line for the vaccine.
On average, it takes between one to two eggs to produce a dose of vaccine. This requires millions of eggs for a vaccination campaign to reach all Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates it could take about 900 million eggs to produce 300 million doses of vaccine required to cover Americans.
Eggs are cost-effective and have been used for this type of production for over fifty years, but the rate of production cannot be quickly ramped up for an emergency. In the past, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called cell-based production the way of the future. According to the Flu.gov website, cell-based vaccine production could help save lives.
- While eggs are perishable, cell lines can be safely kept frozen indefinitely, increasing the capability to rapidly produce vaccines if an influenza pandemic were to occur.
- Vaccine manufacturers are able to bypass the steps needed to adapt the virus strains to grow in eggs.
- People allergic to eggs cannot receive vaccines produced from chicken eggs, but can be immunized with a cell-based vaccine.
Investing in Cell-Based Technologies
While the H1N1 pandemic may have made the public more aware of the nation’s vaccine production capabilities, cell-based production methods have been discussed since the 1990s when the technology was first introduced. When a seasonal flu vaccine shortage occurred in 2004, the media reported on the developments in a vaccine production technology that cultivates viruses in cells from insects, monkeys, and human fetal retinas.
Scientists in the United States and Europe continue to experiment with cell-based technologies. Austrian researchers found that producing vaccine in insect cells could reduce the production period by up to ten weeks. Their findings were recently published in Biotechnology Journal.
Currently, the government assists in funding egg farmers and manufacturing plants to ensure a national stockpile of vaccines is maintained year-round. In 2007, HHS began funding retrofitting of manufacturing plants in order to ensure year-round production of stockpiled vaccine. The government has also invested in the continued development of new vaccine production technologies.
Moving Past the Needle
In other vaccine developments, immunity may soon be available in non-needle forms. These could include vaccines that are inhaled, similar to the FluMist vaccines that were given out to protect against H1N1 this year. In addition, vaccines may soon be shot through the arm, but not with a needle. Instead, a burst of air would push the virus through the skin. It is hoped these technologies will help to increase rates of vaccination by encouraging those with a fear of the needle to step up for vaccinations.