The recent flu season in the US, which is only now coming to an end, was particularly nasty, at least in part due to the inefficacy of the latest generation of influenza vaccine – which is reformulated twice a year, because the virus it’s trying to guard against is famously such an adaptable bug. The richest country in the world recorded 97 pediatric deaths during the last season, a marked increase on recent years.

British analysis company GlobalData has circulated a report recently pointing to outdated manufacture techniques as one of the reasons that the latest vaccine formulation has performed so poorly. The authors of the report say that the frightening casualty rates coming out of the US “reinforce the need to shift away from the traditional chicken egg-based approach of mass production of commercial influenza vaccines, which commonly induces a suboptimal immune response…”

Dr. Sue Huang, Director of the World Health Organization’s National Influenza Centre at New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), a Crown Research Institute, told HealthCentral.nz that it’s a chicken egg situation – humans aren’t chickens, and therefore using chicken eggs as a substrate in vaccine manufacture isn’t optimal.

Dr. Huang supports the position of the GlobalData report, and says that while World Health Organization provide recommendations to manufacturers as to the formulation of a particular season’s influenza vaccine strains, still use egg-based technology to produce vaccines

The alternative to egg-based manufacture, that is now being ‘scaled up’ by some companies to serve the US and European markets, is cell-based manufacture. In an article on pbs.org, American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb talked about the sole vaccine brand that is cell-based – Flucelvax made by Sequiris – and was used in this year’s severe flu season, saying that, although the data hasn’t been thoroughly examined, he is “comfortable saying that I think it’s going to be about 20 percent improved efficacy for the cell-based vaccine relative to the egg-based vaccines…”

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, we can only hope that the pleas of virologists like Dr. Huang are heeded sooner rather than later. In the GlobalData report, Gilbert Saint Jean, PhD, Healthcare Analyst at GlobalData, is quoted:

“In order to best facilitate this shift away from egg-based technology, governments must modernize their partnerships with vaccine manufacturers. Current surveillance by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions revolves around the 6–8 month egg-substrate vaccine timeline. Overall vaccine efficacy improves with the newer technologies if their quicker manufacturing times are combined with government-provided seed virus submissions from increased surveillance at the global level for mutations in the antigenic target of flu vaccines.”

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