It's not often that I am asked to take off my clothes to do my job. But that was just one of the many requirements if I wanted to visit the one plant in the United States manufacturing the H1N1 vaccine.
Getting into the "clean" facility meant leaving behind all personal possessions, removing all jewelry and make-up, and then taking off all street clothes down to the undergarments. It was then time to suit up: to pull on a sterilized top and pants similar to medical scrubs, to slip on paper booties over my required rubber-soled shoes, slap a hairnet on my hair, and protective glasses over my eyes. Hands were scrubbed with a disinfectant, and then we stepped into the airlock compartment area before heading into the heart of the plant itself. All of these precautions are designed not to protect us from the H1N1 virus, but to protect the virus from us, to ensure there is no outside contamination.
The Sanofi Pasteur H1N1 vaccine plant is located in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, in the small town of Swiftwater, about two hours outside Philadelphia. Sanofi Pasteur is one of five companies making the H1N1 vaccine for the nation, but it is the only one whose manufacturing plant is located in the U.S.
Building 59, as it is know, is part of a 500-acre Sanofi complex with over 4,000 employees and contractors. On this property, the company also manufactures four other vaccines, including the seasonal flu shot.
Inside its state-of-the art, new $200 million flu vaccine manufacturing plant, you will find eggs- millions of them. It's an age-old technique for making the flu vaccine, now done in a very high-tech mechanized way. The eggs arrive by the truckload every day, coming from farms all over the country whose job it is to harvest eggs for the flu vaccine. For security purposes, Sanofi won't say where the farms are located.
The eggs, in open cartons of 36, run along a conveyer belt through a machine outfitted with needles. Those needles punch a hole in each shell and inject tiny amounts of the H1N1 virus into the egg membrane. "The egg is essentially a small self-contained factory," according to Sam Lee, Director of Manufacturing Technology. The eggs then go into an incubator, where they sit for just a few days, allowing the virus to grow.
The virus-laden fluid is collected from the eggs and pumped into huge steel tanks that hold up to 1,000 gallons -- tanks that resemble something you might see in a California winery or at your neighborhood brew pub. There, the fluid is purified and run through filters, and the live virus is inactivated, or "killed" to ensure that the vaccine won't give anyone the flu. It's mixed with a saline solution and loaded into glass vials, ready for distribution to the cities and states so desperate to receive it. Those vials are photographed more than America's top models, sent through a machine that takes multiple pictures of each vial and compares it to computer images to ensure there are no cracks in the vials, or contaminants in the vaccine.