Over the past 40 years, millions of lives have been changed because of advances in medical technology. From stem-cell research to reengineering the way we take our daily medications, these developments have brought health care into the 21st century. However, there has been a vast disconnect between these improvements and the manufacturing processes used to provide influenza vaccines to the public.
Shockingly, the method used to produce the influenza vaccine has not been significantly transformed since 1931, when vaccines used for preventive care were first introduced to the public.
Influenza causes between 3,000 and 49,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations in any given season, so it is critical to utilize the most effective production methods to create influenza vaccines to protect our communities. Until recently, all influenza vaccines available in the U.S. were produced by growing and harvesting the virus in chicken eggs. While the method has been successful, millions of eggs are needed to produce enough vaccine for our communities each year, requiring production to begin many months in advance. Once the virus strains are selected for the upcoming influenza season by the World Health Organization, and companies begin manufacturing the vaccine, it can take anywhere between six and nine months to make the vaccine available to physicians or pharmacists.
The egg-based manufacturing process has been working for us to date; however, there is a new process that raises the bar in influenza vaccine manufacturing, is less time-consuming and brings the manufacturing process into the digital age.
Cell-culture technology is the latest production technique for influenza vaccine manufacturing, which involves growing the virus in cells from mammals, rather than chicken eggs. This method offers advantages over the conventional egg-based process:
• Since no eggs need to be collected, vaccines can be produced and available to the public quicker, which is critical in case of a flu pandemic.
• The process does not use any preservatives or antibiotics during production.
Cell-culture technology has been successfully used to manufacture many other vaccines, including those distributed during the H1N1 pandemic, as well as vaccines for polio, rubella and hepatitis A. This technology also has been tried and tested in other countries, which have already approved and use cell-based influenza vaccines abroad. Recently, the FDA gave its stamp of approval to use the technology in influenza vaccines available in the U.S., with an approval of a cell-based seasonal influenza vaccine.
It is important that such a fundamental vaccine that every American ages 6 months and older is advised to receive each year is available using the most cutting-edge technology. I am excited to see how this major advancement will help start a new chapter in the evolution of influenza prevention.