Government Hands out $1 Billion for Bird Flu Vaccine Development

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded more than $1 billion in contracts today to five vaccine manufacturers to help develop a stockpile of effective bird flu vaccine.

Right now, the current vaccine for H5N1 -- or the bird flu virus -- doesn't produce enough of an immune reaction from the body, so a higher-dose vaccine needs to be developed. Also, making flu vaccines is a slow process, and the department would like the companies to look into faster methods.

It could take three years to five years to develop 300 million courses of vaccine, or enough for every U.S. resident, Secretary Mike Leavitt said at a news conference today.

That's a challenging objective considering flu viruses mutate and change every year, meaning the vaccine must change also.

The companies that will be splitting the contract money are GlaxoSmithKline, Medimmune, Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, DynPort Vaccine, and Solvay Pharmaceuticals.

They will be expected to develop cell-based technology rather than rely on currently used egg-based tools, a process during which the flu virus is incubated in fertilized chicken eggs. The cell-based method would be faster and not rely on chickens.

Vaccine companies also are working on developing DNA-based vaccines, done by inserting the genes of the flu into a harmless virus. A vaccine made this way would protect against all types of influenza.

"It's the holy grail" of vaccine development, Leavitt said, because it could eliminate the need for annual flu shots.

In the interim, the government is planning to create a stockpile of 4 million doses of vaccine against the H5N1 bird flu available. This would provide some protection to the United States as scientists move toward a more broadly available vaccine.

"Overall, being better prepared will mean that we are a healthier and stronger nation," Leavitt said.

Khama Ennis-Holcombe is an emergency medicine resident at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's Hospitals in Boston.