This article features an additional bonus interview with Matthew Stober, global head of technical operations at Novartis.
Not so very long ago, vaccine development and manufacturing was something of a backwater in pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing
programs. Now, suddenly it's at the forefront. After all, Wyeth's (Madison, NJ) vaccine program was one of the attractions
making it an acquisition target for Pfizer (New York). What's more, several analyst reports place vaccines as the highest
growth sector of biopharmaceutical programs. What's happened lately to catapult vaccines into the spotlight?
(PHOTOS: PAUL TEARIE, STOCKBYTE, GETTY IMAGES SAM SARKIS, PHOTOGRAPHER'S CHOICE, GETTY IMAGES)
A few things. The outbreak in recent years of two widespread and potentially fatal strains of flu elevated influenza from
medical inconvenience to public-health emergency. Second, well-publicized delays in producing vaccine against the H1N1 pandemic
strain in 2009 highlighted how ineffectual is the traditional manufacturing paradigm in responding to sudden large-scale outbreaks
of influenza. Both events placed new pressures on manufacturers to find novel, more responsive, more scalable methods for
Indeed just this past August, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report to the
president on ways to reengineer the entire influenza vaccine manufacturing enterprise to meet the challenges of a pandemic
influenza outbreak. At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a report describing how government
and industry could work together to tackle pandemic influenza, and according to a recent press briefing by HHS Secretary Kathleen
Sebelius, the Obama administration proposed a $2 billion strategy to create a more "nimble and flexible" system for responding
to novel pathogens (see Washington Report).
But switching to new manufacturing paradigms will not come easily or cheaply. For one thing, the traditional platform already
has regulatory approval. But FDA released a guidance in February 2010 that paves the way for novel formulations and manufacturing
approaches. Even if regulatory roadblocks were removed, however, there remains the stark economic reality that traditional
influenza vaccine is a low-margin business, which leaves little incentive for innovation. Notes Rahul Singhvi, president and
CEO of Novavax (Rockville, MD), "If you looked at the vaccine landscape today, it would be tough to say that influenza is
a good area to go into given that five companies dominate the market and that the vaccine is basically a commodity." The trick
for companies looking to move the technology forward is to find a solution as economical as it is effective.