How soon until a swine flu vaccine?

May 12, 2009

The recent swine flu outbreak thankfully was not a pandemic. But it may have been the start of a new industry, for immunization for influenza H1N1.

The recent swine flu outbreak thankfully was not a pandemic. But it may have been the start of a new industry, for immunization for influenza H1N1.

Vaccines, as many pediatricians know, are not made by mixing ingredients but by growing them, often inside chicken eggs. It takes many months before vaccine doses are ready: contamination can halve the vaccine supply in any given year. That, combined with fear of vaccines, makes them a huge and costly enterprise, often with a very low profit margin.

As of last year, there would be few takers for a swine flu vaccine, which only had sporadic incidents. Now, though, things are different. The World Health Organization has ordered the world’s pharmaceutical makers to prepare to make a posisble pandemic level of swine flu doses. That would be in the neighborhood of one to two billion doses: it currently makes less than a billion influenza doses yearly.

Being prepared doesn’t mean that production should go full-steam ahead, though: without a pandemic, most of the two billion immunizations may not be used. But many countries, including the US, reportedly have already put in orders for H1N1 vaccines. So most likely the sanofi pasteurs and GlaxoSmithKlines of the world will soon have swine flu immunizations ready for inspection.

Whether there will be any swine flu threat for them to combat is a different story.