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Why Vaccine Makers Can't Keep Up with the H1N1 Virus

eggsThe CDC just can't seem to get its predictions right when it comes to H1N1 vaccine delivery. In July, the organization said 120 million doses would be available to Americans by mid-October. In August, they reduced the estimate to 45 million doses. Now in mid-October it's down again to between 28 and 30 million, with some states ordering 10 times the amount actually distributed. Meanwhile, the disease has spread through 46 states and claimed 5,000 lives globally, according to the World Health Organization. And over the weekend, President Barack Obama declared the H1N1 outbreak a national emergency. The move was said to be largely administrative, allowing hospitals to transfer patients to alternate or satellite locations in the event of a sudden surge of victims.

Why are there delays at the most critical juncture of an outbreak that doctors have watched germinate for months? Because the traditional egg-based methods that vaccine manufacturers have relied on for the past 50 years can't keep up a pandemic like swine flu, experts say. But there is a faster way.

While egg-based vaccine production may work fine for seasonal flu, the process, which requires one chicken egg roughly one chicken egg per dose, can produce unpredictable yields and is difficult to scale up on short notice (the WHO had originally hoped for 4.9 billion doses of the vaccine to be available by spring). There are alternatives to the egg-based approach. As we discussed in an August post, companies, such as Connecticut-based Protein Sciences, have been working on molecular genetics techniques to produce vaccines in cells, which say they are both faster and more reliable than egg-based methods.

The U.S. government has invested billions of dollars in these new technologies over the past few years, but, although a few cell-based vaccines have been approved in Europe, none have been approved by the FDA. Still, some researchers say wide-scale adoption of cell-based vaccines is imminent and that by the next pandemic flu, egg-based vaccines could be a thing of the past. Of course, that's what people were saying back in 2005, too.

[Image via themissiah on Flickr Creative Commons]