Investing in vaccines

A bottle of vaccine against the H5N1 virus and syringe at the French zoo of La Palmyre in western France.

TESS VIGELAND: Two years ago we found out just how sorely lacking this country is when it comes to vaccine production. Contamination at a manufacturing plant in England prompted shortages of flu shots here. The process is largely in the hands of the private sector and there's not a lot of money in it.So drug companies haven't made vaccines a priority. Until now. Today the US government injected a billion dollars into research and development in preparation for a possible avian flu pandemic. Marketplace's Hillary Wicai reports.


HILLARY WICAI: The five companies who got the money will build more US vaccine production facilities and improve vaccine-making technology. They'll develop something called cell-based vaccines. This is news because most manufacturers are still using a 40-year-old method reliant on chicken eggs. Gigi Grunvall at the University of Pittsburgh says there's a sound economic reason why companies haven't done this yet.
GIGI GRUNVALL: If one company was to say, "OK, I'm going to pay to license my cell-culture vaccine," and that was approved by the FDA, all the other companies could benefit from the fact that it was approved but they didn't have to pay for it. So it's classic market failure.

So the government provided today's billion-dollar incentive. And for good reason: cell cultures can produce more vaccine than chicken eggs. Not to mention chickens are the very things at risk for Avian flu. Arnold Monto at the University of Michigan says boosting US production is key.

ARNOLD MONTO: Most of our vaccine now has been imported. The best way to make sure that we have vaccine available during a pandemic is to have domestic production.

But even a billion can't buy a quick fix. Michael Osterholm is at the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: I do believe that the fruits of this effort could pay off in three years or even sooner. The point being that this is not an overnight solution, an overnight miracle, but you can't even hope for a miracle until you start it.

Besides preparing for a possible pandemic, one of the grant recipients, GlaxoSmithKline, says today's cash infusion will help crank out much more regular ol' flu vaccine. It's in short supply worldwide.

In Washington, I'm Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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