The rush to satisfy a growing clamor for swine flu vaccine is being slowed considerably by a key supply problem. Manufacturers developing a new jab say that the virus being used in the lab produces relatively meager quantities of antigen--the key ingredient needed to trigger an immune response--which could force governments around the world to wait in line far longer than they had anticipated.
Some 50 countries have already ordered tens of millions of doses of new vaccine as the virus--milder than originally feared but still capable of producing scary headlines wherever it kills people--races around the world. And Baxter International, the only U.S. company making the vaccine, announced yesterday that it stopped taking new orders for the jab once the company hit the 80 million dose mark.
"At this time we're not in a position to take additional orders," a spokesman said.
Other, much larger manufacturers like GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis, say they're hard at work developing a new jab as swiftly as they can. So far, though, the FDA has yet to approve any new jab for sale, though that is expected soon.
"The company is doing everything it can to produce as much as possible as fast as possible," said Sarah Coles, a spokeswoman for Novartis tells Reuters. "In fact, all three of our sites in Europe are in full production of H1N1."
Making a vaccine follows a simple recipe. Researchers obtain a sample of the virus, cultivate it, inactivate it and then make it into an antigen. But this H1N1 virus yields much smaller quantities of antigen than what's needed, particularly as countries like France order enough vaccine to protect three quarters of its population.
To top it all off, new projections in the UK indicate that swine flu could kill 19,000 to 65,000 people during just the first wave of the pandemic. The U.K. Department of Health hoped to calm the public by saying that that estimate is a worst case scenario. WHO says it is working on developing a new version of the virus that can produce far larger quantities of virus.