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How vaccines became big business (JOHN WOODS)
How vaccines became big business (JOHN WOODS)

Flu Inc.

How vaccines became big business Add to ...

Dr. Spika and others in the vaccine community warned that if a serious pandemic broke out, countries would close their borders and hoard vaccine. Governments began setting aside money in federal budgets for pandemic preparations. Ottawa also began negotiating a long-term vaccine supply agreement with BioChem, which had the only flu vaccine facility in Canada.

For Mr. Vezeau at BioChem, pandemic planning was a godsend. Suddenly, he had the attention of government officials. "We were losing money, so we went to the government and said, 'Listen, for this to be a viable manufacturer, we need to increase the price of our vaccine," Mr. Vezeau said. They got a higher price.

The government pursued contract negotiations with BioChem on a deal that was potentially so lucrative it began to push the value of the company higher. Before it was even signed, Shire Biologics stepped in and purchased BioChem in 2001. Soon after, the company signed a 10-year pact with Ottawa that would see the Quebec facility responsible for producing flu shots for every Canadian in a pandemic.

Dr. Spika called the deal "a cheap insurance policy" for the country. At a price tag of $300-million, it was more money than the vaccine maker had ever seen before.

Other vaccine companies began to negotiate similar large-scale contracts in dozens of countries, from Switzerland to France and even such smaller nations as Iceland.

However, one problem remained for the vaccine manufacturers as governments around the world began doling out money for contracts. The process was slow and hard to use on a mass scale. "They have to use chicken embryos and there isn't enough supply of those readily available to be able to make tons of vaccine," Dr. Ossi said.

Fighting pandemic flu with vaccine made from eggs alone would be a losing battle, many believed. Companies needed to find a way to increase the amount of vaccine that could be produced in order to capitalize on the growth. And that particular discovery was already in the works.

The problem with making vaccines

For years, scientists had tried to find a faster way to make vaccines. They chased a variety of theories, including isolating the DNA of a virus, which many researchers believed would unlock new ways to fight infections. But at its main vaccine facility in Rixensart, Belgium, Glaxo had found a way to make vaccines more potent using another kind of technology: adjuvants.

Adjuvants are like superchargers for vaccines. They are mild contaminants that cause the body to respond with a more intense immune response. When paired with antigens, the adjuvant liquid can make the vaccine's impact stronger. This allows for more doses to be produced from less antigen.

The word itself comes from the Latin "adjuvare" which means to help or aid. But adjuvants, like so many scientific discoveries, were stumbled upon almost by accident.

Testing on different batches of vaccines often found that some worked better than others. In cases where there was a slight contaminant present in the mix - something as simple as using dirty lab materials - researchers found there was an enhanced immune response from the body to that dose of vaccine.

Thus the adjuvant industry was born, with contaminants such as oils, salts and virosomes (which are bits of influenza virus that do not replicate) added to vaccines.

"It allows us to decrease the antigen content, which allows us to multiply the capacity," said Philippe Monteyne, senior vice-president of global vaccines development at Glaxo. "And of course, multiplying the capacity has some impacts on the business side," boosting profits.

Adjuvants allowed companies to pump out more, but it is also a higher-margin business than antigens.

Significantly more than half the price of a dose of flu vaccine is attributable to the adjuvant, though Glaxo doesn't disclose the exact figures. "That's why vaccines became so attractive," Mr. Monteyne said. "Most of the value in our case is put on the adjuvant technology."

For the drug companies, the new interest in vaccines by governments looking to get as many flu shots as they could buy, and the scientific advances of adjuvants, came at an opportune time.

Many drug makers were starting to worry about the long-term viability of megadrugs like Lipitor, a cholesterol fighter, and Zantac, an ulcer treatment, that have a finite period of patent protection. When the patents expire, the market is flooded with cheaper generic versions. The big drug companies needed a new source of revenue, and the advent of large-scale vaccine manufacturing looked promising.

With the value of vaccines on the rise with the fears of avian flu, the drug companies also liked something else about the resurgent business: they had it to themselves.

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