Heightened flu season turns focus on vaccine advancements

A heightened flu season and a spate of newly approved influenza vaccines have experts wondering what else they can do to mitigate or prevent the seasonal illness. Next up: A universal flu vaccine administered every 5 to 10 years to fight multiple virus strains and eradicate the need for annual shots.

But that's 8 to 10 years down the line, experts say, and in the meantime, companies are working to improve the efficacy of flu vaccines and decrease the time it takes to manufacture them. So far, that effort has proved successful. Last year, the FDA approved two quadrivalent flu shots--vaccines that protect against four strains instead of the usual three--from GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and AstraZeneca ($AZN), and a vaccine from Novartis ($NVS) grown in dog kidney cells instead of chicken eggs, allowing for faster production. And just last week, the regulatory agency gave the thumbs-up to Protein Sciences' Flublok, a shot that relies on genetic code and is grown in insect cells.

Flu vaccines tend not to generate remarkable revenue for pharmaceutical companies because they are expensive to make and the influenza virus mutates from season to season. A particularly mild flu season could leave companies with unsold extras on hand. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pumped more than $1 billion into contracts to 6 manufacturers to work on cell-based flu vaccine technology, Reuters reports, similar to the one Novartis turned out last year. HHS provided Novartis with almost $500 million to help the company build a facility capable of producing the cell-based vaccine on U.S. soil.

HHS didn't stop there; the department handed $147 million over 5 years to Protein Sciences to help the small biotech produce Flublok.

"The new technology offers the potential for faster startup of the vaccine manufacturing process in the event of a pandemic, because it is not dependent on an egg supply or on availability of the influenza virus," Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said while announcing the Flublok approval, as quoted by Reuters.

Now the department wants companies to work on long-term flu vaccines to protect against seasonal influenza and pandemics. Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are making progress. The branch of NIH already started Phase I studies in people, and BARDA is stepping up to handle manufacturing of a vaccine. Whoever rolls out a flu vaccine that carries through multiple seasons will likely find themselves at the top of the flu vaccine food chain.

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Special Report: Major FDA vaccine approvals of 2012