Government Backs Futuristic Flu Shots

By Matthew Herper

The U.S. government is pledging $215 million — and as much as $375 million — to two biotechnology companies working to pioneer faster, more efficient ways to make vaccines for influenza.

As was evident when the outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu swept across the country in 2009, our system for making flu vaccines is antiquated, relying on chicken farms run by vaccine makers like Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, and Novartis. (See: HHS awards contracts to develop new flu vaccine technology)

The process of making influenza vaccines is fundamentally unchanged since Jonas Salk injected the first flu shot in 1943. Eggs from hundreds of thousands of chickens are infected with flu virus–roughly one egg for every dose made–and then purified to make killed-virus vaccine. This method requires four or five months to develop a vaccine once a new strain is pinpointed.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded two contracts today to biotech companies trying to provide an alternative.

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