Accidental poliovirus dump adds to GSK's production woes

River Scheldt--Courtesy of Wikipedia

September is proving to be another tricky month for GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) vaccine production operation. Having begun the month by revealing new problems at its Canadian flu vaccine plant and followed that up with a fine for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act last week, GSK has now accidentally dumped live poliovirus into the Belgian sewer system.

The events became public knowledge after Belgian authorities reported the leak to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Here's what reportedly happened. On September 2 a "human error" resulted in 45 liters of concentrated live poliovirus solution being released from GSK's plant in Rixensart, Belgium. The liquid was processed at a nearby sewage treatment plant and released into a river.

Belgian authorities think the low concentration of any poliovirus that made it to the river and the high rate of vaccine coverage in the country mean the risk of infection is extremely small. ECDC has some concerns, though. The affected river eventually joins the Scheldt and flows through the southwestern part of the Netherlands, a region in which orthodox protestant communities live. Polio vaccine use is relatively low among these communities.

Tests of water samples from the rivers have found no poliovirus, suggesting the event is more likely to be an embarrassment for GSK than a public health disaster. The polio dump is the latest in a string of vaccine manufacturing problems at GSK. Canada has been the site of the most high-profile problems, but the Belgian operation has also had difficulties. Earlier this year GSK warned of a shortage of chickenpox vaccines after batches produced in Belgium fell short of standards.

- read FiercePharmaManufacturing's coverage
- here's the ECDC report