At a closely guarded mountainside factory in Stillwater, Pa., a woman plucks a vial from an assembly line and unceremoniously dumps its shimmering contents into what looks like a metal spittoon.
The precious liquid is freshly made flu vaccine -- something akin to the elixir of life these days. Although there's nothing wrong with the fluid, the worker must periodically discard some to make sure a machine is squirting the right amount into each vial.
Ironically, she'll get none of it to protect herself. Aventis Pasteur (search) has ordered employees to do as most Americans are being asked: Skip the flu shot this year unless you're at high risk of getting seriously ill from flu.
"Company policy," she said with a shrug.
The woman is one of 1,500 workers at this 50-building, 70-acre compound that's a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia. Iron gates surround it, and security guards record the license plates of visitors, who must be escorted at all times. The Associated Press was granted a rare look inside.
The mood is tense. Many workers start early, end late, and spend their days dealing with the simultaneous blessing and curse of having the only flu shots in the nation.
Perched on computers in the warren of cubicles housing the company's sales force are Beanie Baby-like animals that were given to reward workers who had twisted customers' arms to get orders for Aventis.
Now workers are calling customers back with a very different request in an effort to steer vaccine to places that have none.
"We're going to them and asking them voluntarily to accept fewer doses, and we're getting good cooperation," said company spokesman Len Lavenda.
Aventis is in charge of figuring out which Peters it can rob; the federal government tells it which Pauls to pay.
No one at Aventis expected to be in this position. Two weeks ago, the company had finished making its planned 52 million doses plus pilot lots of an experimental bird flu vaccine for the government to test. Production areas were closed for fumigation.
Only filling and packaging of the rest of this year's vaccine remained to be done when word came that rival Chiron Corp (search). couldn't supply any shots this year because of contamination at its plant in England.
Now workers are hustling to fill two to three million doses a week while gearing up for an unexpected new run of 2.6 million more that won't be ready until January.
Wearing yellow goggles, thick rubber gloves and cloth uniforms that cover them from top to toe, some work in a glass-enclosed room where clear plastic tubing carries hundreds of thousands of doses from a stainless steel tank to a dispensing machine.
Its eight needles squirt a little more than 10 doses into each sterile vial, which gets an aluminum safety seal and a turquoise-colored cap and moves on a belt past large microfiche-like viewing screens. Workers peer at the magnified images, searching for tiny particles in the swirling liquid that would make it unfit for use.
Once an hour, a worker snatches a vial, weighs it, tosses its contents, uses a yellow coiled air hose suspended from the ceiling to dry it, then weighs it again to make sure the right amount of vaccine had been inside.
Nobody winces, but Raymond "RJ" Fitch, a filling and processing team leader, acknowledges the difficulty of discarding a product that millions desperately want.
"Sure it's hard, but it's part of ensuring you have the right level of quality," he said.
Other workers scrutinize each label for smudges over the expiration date or identifying information. Still others sit with calculators and log sheets, poring over columns of numbers to ensure lots can be tracked through testing and distribution.
Sam Lee, a 40-year-old chemical engineer who is Aventis' operations team leader, has overseen much of this in more than nine years with the company. He had planned to go to a clinic last Sunday to get a flu shot with his wife and three children as they do every year.
"We make it. I know the benefits of it," he said of the vaccine.
Lee feels confident he'll be able to get a shot next year, but Aventis employees have learned not to try to predict the future.
"We have a saying around here: Once you've seen one flu season, you've seen one flu season," Lavenda said. "No two are the same."