WASHINGTON — Five companies won more than $1 billion in contracts to develop better influenza vaccines and make them largely on U.S. territory, the Health and Human Services Department said Thursday.
GlaxoSmithKline was awarded $274.8 million, and MedImmune Inc. received $169.5 million. Novartis won $220.5 million, and Computer Sciences Corp. unit DynPort Vaccine Co., working with Baxter International Inc., got $41 million. Solvay Pharmaceuticals received $298.6 million.
The companies will develop cell-based vaccines to fight seasonal influenza or a possible pandemic strain. The new vaccines will be grown in laboratories in cell cultures, or batches of cells, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said.
The new method is intended to replace egg-based systems, which require steady supplies of carefully grown eggs and months of cultivation.
The target is the annual seasonal flu and the H5N1 influenza spreading among birds. Although the avian strain does not easily infect humans, it has killed more than 100 people.
Experts fear that it could mutate into a form that could spread easily and quickly among humans. If that happened, it would spark a pandemic and work on a vaccine to fight it would have to begin quickly. Leavitt said the goal was to have enough vaccine for every American within six months of declaring a pandemic.
Experts have been urging the United States for years to help companies modernize their influenza vaccine production. The current, 40-year-old technology is unwieldy and unreliable, and it takes months to determine how many vaccines will be available in a given year.
Health and Human Services is worried that almost all flu vaccines are made outside the U.S. Also, vaccines might not be available for Americans if countries kept the supplies for their own citizens during a pandemic.
GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, Solvay and Novartis said the funding would help them build or expand their manufacturing capacity in the United States.
Baxter said it would provide doses of a vaccine for a potential pandemic flu to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for human testing, which is expected to start this year.
MedImmune, which makes a nasal-spray vaccine, in June plans to begin testing whether its technology works on a potential pandemic strain, Chief Executive David Mott said.