The nation’s sole flu shot supplier said Tuesday it had won a federal contract to move toward year-round vaccine production, a step that should mean faster action if a new killer flu emerges.
The $10 million contract to Aventis Pasteur, the vaccine division of French-based Sanofi-Aventis, comes just two days before the world’s vaccine makers gather in Geneva to plan how to respond to a pandemic.
Flu vaccine is made from chicken eggs that are produced on a seasonal basis. The contract will allow Aventis to maintain chicken flocks that are laying eggs year-round. That would ensure a constant supply of eggs that could be used to make a new vaccine if one were needed in a hurry to fight a new deadly strain.
The new contract will have no effect on the current flu shot shortage, but experts believe it will help address a more dangerous threat — a flu strain for which people have no immunity.
The company also will make a potential pandemic vaccine once a year from a virus identified by federal health officials that can be held in reserve in case a worldwide epidemic emerged.
Aventis already has made 8,000 doses of an experimental “bird flu” vaccine to be tested in people early next year and another 2 million doses to be held in bulk in case the worrisome outbreaks in Asia become more widespread.
“The company already is involved in multiple pandemic vaccine development efforts in Europe and the United States” and would welcome the chance to make similar arrangements for year-round flocks in other countries, said a statement from Aventis chairman David J. Williams.
The contract can be extended for a total value of $41 million over five years.
“The existing flu vaccine manufacturing system is not adequate to meet the nation’s needs in the event of a flu pandemic or a shortage,” said a statement from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
The World Health Organization has called a meeting of large countries and vaccine makers in Geneva on Thursday to ramp up preparedness for a pandemic. At least 16 companies including some from Russia and Japan say they’ll attend.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Tuesday that the last 11.6 million doses of flu shots available for this season mostly will be divided up among states, for their health departments and officials to dole out, based on a formula that considers each state’s population of high-risk people.
Plans are being coordinated among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health departments and Aventis.
“We’re working hard to make sure every dose counts,” said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding.
About 1.3 million doses will be held by the CDC as an emergency reserve in case of unexpected outbreaks.
Of the total 58 million doses that Aventis could make this flu season, about 33 million doses already had been shipped when news came in early October that Chiron Corp. would be unable to supply the 48 million doses because of contamination.
Healthy people have been asked to skip getting flu shots this year to save them for those who most need them: the elderly, babies and toddlers ages 6-23 months; those with chronic illnesses, and pregnant women. People who live with or take care of such people also should get a shot.