The U.S. government is investing in a new technique for making flu vaccines that it hopes will help the nation respond quickly to outbreaks such as the H1N1 swine flu virus.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Tuesday her department had awarded a $35 million contract to privately held Protein Sciences Corp Inc of Meriden, Connecticut, to use its new gene-based techniques to develop a vaccine and test it in clinical trials.
If testing goes well, the contract could be expanded over five years for a total of nearly $150 million.
"The technology has advanced in recent years to a point that we believe it could help meet a surge in demand for U.S.-based vaccine for seasonal and pandemic flu," Sebelius said in a statement.
"We want to use the technology to help our nation respond to emerging infectious diseases."
The United States has set aside $1 billion for a vaccine to combat the H1N1 strain that has caused a global pandemic.
The cash infusion comes as Protein Sciences, which is developing a quicker way to make vaccines, fights to stay in business. Three creditors filed a petition on Monday in Delaware court seeking to force the company into involuntary bankruptcy.
With conventional methods, vaccine makers germinate a flu virus in fertilized chicken eggs in a process that can take four to six months. Vaccine production capacity is often limited by the number of available eggs.
Protein Sciences uses a method in which it extracts a gene from a flu virus and places it into an insect virus called baculovirus, which is harmless to humans.
The virus quickly multiplies inside insect cells, which are then purified to become a basic part of a human vaccine.
The company said last week it had started working on an H1N1 vaccine using that method and estimated it could make 100,000 doses a week.
Drug companies are racing to meet the global demand for vaccines that will be needed to protect against H1N1. So far, the pandemic has been mild, but many health experts say it could mutate, possibly into a more deadly form.
German health officials said on Tuesday they already saw signs that may be happening.
Several drug makers that use conventional vaccine methods, including Sanofi-Aventis , GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis AG , have obtained H1N1 "seed" virus to begin making vaccines in advance of the next Northern Hemisphere winter.
Baxter International Inc is making an H1N1 vaccine using a cell-based technology that shortens production time.
The World Health Organization has estimated current companies could make up to 4.9 billion pandemic flu shots a year at best, but that would still not cover the world population of 6.5 billion.