MARIETTA, Pa. (AP) -- British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC is moving to expand its vaccine business in the key U.S. market by opening a sprawling East Coast vaccine factory, with production targeted to begin in April.
Glaxo, the world's No. 2 drugmaker and also second in vaccine production by revenue, will initially package the hepatitis B vaccine Engerix B in the plant, which is expected to eventually handle nearly all U.S. demand.
The company bought the factory in 2005 from Wyeth, another major vaccine maker. Glaxo has since spent more than $300 million on renovations and upgrades, Peter Lammers, vice president for vaccines, told journalists during a tour of the 656,000-square-foot facility Wednesday.
"This will be one of our premier vaccine facilities," he said.
Plant staff will have expertise in freeze-drying vaccines -- a process that maintains long-term stability until stock is reconstituted and used -- and in vaccines for both seasonal and pandemic influenza. Glaxo is working closely with the U.S. government on preparations for a flu pandemic, or global epidemic of a highly virulent strain that could quickly kill millions of people.
The highly automated plant primarily will handle vaccine packaging and filling -- the prior step in which bulk vaccine material produced at other facilities is inserted in syringes, which are then sealed, labeled and boxed up.
Glaxo, whose vaccine operations are headquartered in Belgium, currently produces a total of 1.1 billion doses annually of 30 vaccines, including ones for polio, typhoid, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, rotavirus and meningitis. Revenue for those vaccines totaled about $3.9 billion in 2007.
The Marietta plant, which is gearing up to start operations once it has approval from the Food and Drug Administration, now has nearly 180 employees. That's expected to grow to about 300 people by 2013.
The plant is in rural southern Pennsylvania about 70 miles west of Philadelphia.