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Novartis 'Cells' Its Flu Vaccine Technology

AP

For the second time in three weeks I'm at a flu vaccine manufacturing plant today.

Construction isn't finished on the Novartis site yet, but nonetheless they're doing the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony here in Holly Springs, NC this afternoon.

Thankfully, the areas that are done aren't up and running here yet, so when I got a tour yesterday I didn't have to take my clothes off, throw on a jumpsuit and three pairs of booties like I did at Sanofi-Pasteur's ultra-sterile plant recently. A hardhat and safety goggles were all that was required.

The innards of the plant look pretty similar to what I saw at Sanofi. The major difference is that there won't be any eggs here.

Instead, the so-called cell-based vaccine will be brewed in six 1,320 gallon fermenters. After that the purification and fill and finish process is nearly identical to the egg-based method.

And some of the contraptions here are next-generation versus the SNY equipment. For example, Sanofi has a machine with 13 cameras to take photos of filled vaccine vials and syringes from every angle looking for imperfections and impurifications. Here, Novartis has 22 cameras that officials say will snap 101,000 shots per minute. That's not a typo. 101,000 pictures every minute.

Another thing that caught my producer's eye was the bright yellow, little plastic plaque on the giant fermenters. They say that the equipment is owned by the U.S.

Government, Department of Health and Human Services.

That's because taxpayers ponied up nearly half-a-billion dollars to help pay for this place.

You hear a lot about public-private partnerships these days, but to actually see a real one is different.

Novartis will use cells taken from a dog's kidney decades ago. The company says the World Health Organization uses the same cells and for whatever reason the vaccine grows well in the canine kidney cell. Other companies use the same basic technology, but different cells ranging from human retinal to Chinese hampster ovaries (again, not a typo) to caterpillar ovaries (and again, not a typo.)

Can you imagine dissecting a caterpillar to harvest cells from its ovaries? I had a hard enough time cutting open a frog in high school biology.

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