For decades, drug companies have grown vaccines using chicken eggs. That’s why an outbreak of hen-killing avian flu would be such a nightmare scenario: “The whole world would consume all the chicken eggs within a couple of months,” says Guan Yi, director of the Center of Influenza Research at the University of Hong Kong. “We need to have another option.”
According to Bloomberg, CSL, an Australian company, is experimenting with growing vaccines in kidney cells taken from dogs. (No harm comes to the dogs; the cell line has been available since 1958, when researchers took tissue from a female cocker spaniel.) While egg-based vaccines have a limited shelf life, CSL—which makes more flu vaccines than anyone besides Sanofi—says it can keep the dog cells on ice in perpetuity, to respond easily to an outbreak. “That’s critical in case of a pandemic, which spreads rapidly,” says Gordon Naylor, president of the company’s vaccine subsidiary, Seqirus.
CSL is one of a few companies betting new technology can help meet the challenge of producing tens of millions of doses in the few months between the World Health Organization’s recommended vaccine targets and the start of flu season. They’re also betting they can make the market more profitable. Using mammalian cells instead of chicken embryos can help create a vaccine faster and more efficiently, says Russell Basser, senior vice president for research and development at Seqirus. The Holly Springs factory can produce as many as 200 million doses of vaccine in six months, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which contributed $700 million to its construction.
Dog cells are also cheaper, as little as half the $3.50 cost to make a dose of flu vaccine via egg, estimates UBS analyst Andrew Goodsall. That would make flu shots affordable enough for such countries as Mexico and Brazil, he says.
For now, CSL can afford to keep trying, while also continuing egg-based operations. Most of the $1.2 billion profit in its most recent fiscal year came from sales of blood plasma products; the vaccine subsidiary accounted for 10 percent of its $6.1 billion in revenue. In May, CSL won FDA approval for a dog cell-based vaccine targeting four strains of seasonal flu, and the company projects it will turn a profit from the division in 2018.
“The egg-based platform has been around for a long time,” Naylor says. “I don’t expect there will be an overnight transition.”