Insight: U.S. government investment gives flu vaccines a shot in the arm

Sat Jan 19, 2013 8:06am EST
 
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By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Fighting the flu may soon get easier.

As early as next year, more modern and more effective vaccines will hit the market, thanks to investments by the U.S. government and pharmaceutical companies. And even bigger scientific advances are expected in the next decade, including a "universal" flu vaccine given every five to 10 years that would fight many strains of a virus, making annual shots all but obsolete.

Experts say it could take eight to 10 more years of testing before a universal flu vaccine would be ready. Meanwhile, they expect advances that could still incrementally improve the level of protection vaccines offer and shorten manufacturing times.

In the last 12 months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two new seasonal flu vaccines that protect against four predominant strains of flu instead of three. One is a shot made by GlaxoSmithKline and the other is a nasal spray made by AstraZeneca.

In late November, the FDA approved Novartis' new flu vaccine grown in cultures of dog kidney cells instead of the conventional chicken eggs, a faster and more reliable manufacturing process that could help build stockpiles in the event of a pandemic.

And this past week, the FDA green-lighted the first gene-based flu vaccine by Protein Sciences Corp, which uses genetic engineering to grow portions of the virus in insect cells. "This means there are going to be more manufacturers and more types of vaccine available in future flu seasons," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a teleconference on Friday.

Flu vaccines have not been high-revenue generators for major pharmaceutical companies compared with big-selling drugs for diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Vaccines are expensive to make, and the flu can mutate significantly from season to season. In a mild flu season, companies can be left with millions of unsold doses if the flu season is mild.

Interest in vaccines spiked after a particularly deadly strain of bird flu known as H5N1 re-emerged in 2003, raising the threat of a global pandemic that could kill millions. At the time, there were just two vaccine manufacturers located on U.S. soil.   Continued...

 
A sign advertising the availability of flu shots is taped onto a door of a Duane Reade in New York, January 14, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson