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Flu crisis prompts broadest vaccine redesign since 1981

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Carlos Maisonet, 73, reacts as Dr. Eva Berrios-Colon, a professor at Touro College of Pharmacy, injects him with flu vaccine during a visit to the faculty practice center at Brooklyn Hospital in New York. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Carlos Maisonet, 73, reacts as Dr. Eva Berrios-Colon, a professor at Touro College of Pharmacy, injects him with flu vaccine during a visit to the faculty practice center at Brooklyn Hospital in New York. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

  • FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 file photo, Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., as hospitals in Hampton Roads are urging patients and visitors to wear a mask at their facilities to help stop the spread of the flu. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz, File)

    FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 file photo, Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., as hospitals in Hampton Roads are urging patients and visitors to wear a mask at their facilities to help stop the spread of the flu. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz, File)

  • Vials of flu vaccine are displayed at Philly Flu Shots on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 in Philadelphia. The flu season arrived early in the U.S. this year, but health officials and experts say it's too early to say this will be a bad one. Experts say evidence so far is pointing to a moderate flu season - it just looks worse because last year's season was so mild. Flu usually doesn't blanket the country until late January or February. Now, it's already widespread in more than 40 states. That could change when the next government report comes out Friday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Vials of flu vaccine are displayed at Philly Flu Shots on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 in Philadelphia. The flu season arrived early in the U.S. this year, but health officials and experts say it's too early to say this will be a bad one. Experts say evidence so far is pointing to a moderate flu season - it just looks worse because last year's season was so mild. Flu usually doesn't blanket the country until late January or February. Now, it's already widespread in more than 40 states. That could change when the next government report comes out Friday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Carlos Maisonet, 73, reacts as Dr. Eva Berrios-Colon, a professor at Touro College of Pharmacy, injects him with flu vaccine during a visit to the faculty practice center at Brooklyn Hospital in New York. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
  • FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 file photo, Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., as hospitals in Hampton Roads are urging patients and visitors to wear a mask at their facilities to help stop the spread of the flu. Health officials say nine more deaths of children from the flu have been reported, bringing the total this flu season to 29. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu, so it is not known whether this year will be better or worse than usual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of confirmed flu cases so far are in people 65 and older. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz, File)
  • Vials of flu vaccine are displayed at Philly Flu Shots on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 in Philadelphia. The flu season arrived early in the U.S. this year, but health officials and experts say it's too early to say this will be a bad one. Experts say evidence so far is pointing to a moderate flu season - it just looks worse because last year's season was so mild. Flu usually doesn't blanket the country until late January or February. Now, it's already widespread in more than 40 states. That could change when the next government report comes out Friday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With the worst flu outbreak since 2009 gripping the United States, vaccine makers are determined to do better next season. They’re developing powerful vaccines that hold the promise of cutting incidences of flu by the thousands.

The new immunizations represent the broadest flu treatment update in three decades, while
more than 200,000 American are hospitalized yearly with the disease, according to U.S. health officials. Officials were caught off-guard last month when the flu season started earlier than in past years, with 48 states now reporting widespread disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday.

Existing vaccines miss significant quantities of the virus circulating in any given year. This year, for instance, as many as 4 million people may develop influenza from a strain of virus that isn’t included in the current vaccine. Now, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are each preparing immunizations that for the first time will cover all four main forms of the virus, including both influenza B strains that often infect children.

“The unpredictability of influenza means it’s best to have the broadest coverage possible,” said Chris Ambrose, vice president of medical and scientific affairs for AstraZeneca’s MedImmune division. “If I am sick, the flu is the flu.”

Because flu is so unpredictable, with different strains becoming dominant year to year, producing a four-in-one vaccine can be a big step forward toward keeping breakouts under control, said John Treanor, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Still, making changes to vaccines is a lengthy and expensive process. The cost to develop a novel vaccine that goes even further and provides long-lasting umbrella protection in the face of constantly mutating viruses may be at least $1 billion, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. That can be a tough sell for a product that brings in little profit for the companies that make it.

Flu vaccines generate $2.4 billion in sales annually worldwide, according to a November report from GlobalData, a London-based business intelligence provider. The market may reach $3 billion in the next decade with the help of an expanding elderly population and the new four-strain vaccines, GlobalData said.

“Flu is not a big commercial endeavor for any company,” Tony Butler, an analyst with Barclays in New York, said in a telephone interview. “At the end of the day, I’m not sure how much ingenuity they will put into it.”

Drug makers say the severity of this year’s flu outbreak validates their decision to move forward.

The current immunizations that cover three of the circulating strains were first introduced in the U.S. in 1981. This year the vaccines are about 62 percent effective.

About 79 percent of this season’s virus stems from influenza A, mainly an H3N2 strain typically linked to more severe outbreaks.
The remainder is from two influenza B strains, both of which will be covered by the new four-strain vaccines to be sold for the next flu season starting later this year.

The four-strain vaccines aren’t the only changes next year from vaccine makers. Protein Sciences Corp. won U.S. regulatory approval Wednesday for a vaccine that can be produced faster than traditional immunizations. Called FluBlok, it is produced in less than two months by inserting flu genes into an insect virus and growing the active protein for the immunization.

The closely held company, based in Meriden, Conn., and backed by U.S. government contracts, will help the country break from the 50-year-old technique of producing the vaccine in chicken eggs.

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