The federal government on Thursday awarded more than $1 billion to five drug manufacturers developing technology for speedier mass production of vaccines in the event of a pandemic.
The funding comes from the $3.8 billion that Congress approved last year in the name of pandemic preparedness. The federal government says its goal is to be able to distribute a vaccine to every American within six months of a pandemic. Currently, flu vaccines are produced in specialized chicken eggs, but that technique does not allow for speedy mass vaccinations.
''The hard truth is that, at this moment, the capacity simply does not exist in the United States to produce vaccines with sufficient speed and quantity to reach everyone out there. That's true of countries all over the world, but that's about to change,'' said Mike Leavitt, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, before signing the contracts
The companies receiving the contracts were: GlaxoSmithKline, $274.8 million; MedImmune Inc, $169.5 million; Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, $220.5 million; DynPort, $41 million; and Solvay Pharmaceutical, $298.6 billion. The contracts cover a five-year period.
Leavitt said vaccines are America's best line of defense if there is a pandemic, which occurs when people have little immunity to a particular strain of flu that spreads across the globe. Leavitt often refers to the pandemic of 1918 as an example of a worst-case scenario that he says could kill up to 2 million Americans.
''There is no reason to believe the 21st Century will be different than centuries past,'' Leavitt said when describing the prospects for a pandemic. Health officials are concerned that a form of influenza now spreading in birds could eventually mutate and spread from person to person.
Leavitt said the contracts would help the federal government meet other goals, including the diversification of a domestic supply of vaccines so that the United States would not have to rely on foreign production during a pandemic. He also said the technology could help the country build up its stock of seasonal flu vaccines as well.
Leavitt noted that the federal government is also stockpiling masks, gloves and other equipment that could be used in a pandemic, plus it has contracted with drug manufacturers to provide for 4 million treatment courses of a vaccine against the current H5N1 virus. He said that researchers are also working on the development of a new generation of vaccines that would be broadly protective of a wide range of influenza viruses.
''The creation of this type of vaccine is the Holy Grail, if you will, of preventing influenza,'' Leavitt said. ''The challenges are substantial, but if we can get there, it would take the threat of a pandemic right off the table.''