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New and Old Ways to Make Flu Vaccines


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce recently toured a new addition that will triple the plant's capacity, and she saw a lot of something that you might be eating for breakfast.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: What I saw was eggs - white chicken eggs. For decades, vaccine makers have used eggs as little factories to grow the virus. You might think that the people who work here would stop seeing eggs as food.

SAM LEE: Actually, I enjoy eating eggs. I enjoy eggs in all aspects.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sam Lee works for Sanofi Pasteur, the company that built this new facility. From the outside, it looks like a corporate office building, but inside it generates the bulk vaccine that gets put in those little vials. Lee says the concentrated fluid shines. It looks opalescent.

LEE: It's actually more of a cream opalescence.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It sounds kind of pretty.

LEE: Yes. Well, certainly for me, from a manufacturing standpoint, I enjoy looking at some rich fluid because it means I have a highly potent vaccine at that point.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But before that, what he's got is eggs.

SHAWN HANES: The area that we just entered is normally very restricted.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sanofi employee Shawn Hanes is taking a tour group through an airlock and down a long hallway.

HANES: First stage of the process that you're going to see is inoculation. We're going to...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) the other thing stopped.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sam Lee says his company is thrilled to have this new addition, which will start making vaccines for next year's flu season. It will push Swiftwater's production capacity up to 150 million doses a year.

LEE: This facility is what we dreamed of.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But even though everything is gleaming and state-of-the-art, the fundamental technology is based on chickens. So now Sanofi and other drug companies are developing alternatives.

MONTAGNE: Right now it doesn't look like much. A few piles of dirt, dump trucks, and back hoes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When a company called Novartis broke ground for a new flu vaccine plant in North Carolina, it was big news for the town of Holly Springs. The plant will brew up flu vaccine in huge vats of lab-grown cells.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Clearly the future of influenza vaccine manufacture is cell-based as opposed to egg-based.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says one advantage of a cell-based plant is that it can scale up production very quickly. It doesn't have to wait for chickens and roosters to do their thing.

FAUCI: If you have cells, you have them essentially there in storage and growing in vats. You just have those cells ready to go.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's attractive for officials who are planning for a flu pandemic - a dangerous epidemic that can occur when a new strain of flu appears. The federal government has shelled out over a billion dollars over the last few years to help vaccine companies transition to cell-based methods. But that will take time. So Fauci says pandemic planners are also boosting egg-based production.

FAUCI: We're projecting over 130 million doses that will be available for this flu season, which is the largest amount ever.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Morning Edition
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.