The world's second largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, is investing close to €100 million in a new manufacturing facility in Dresden, Germany, for flu vaccines.
The move comes as one of the world's major flu vaccine producers, Chiron, is facing continuing problems with its own production capacity, raising the prospect of shortages in the forthcoming 2005/6 flu season.
Chiron is still waiting for the US Food and Drug Administration's verdict on its Liverpool facility, which was forced to stop operations in the build-up to last year's flu season because of sterility problems, and recently revealed similar issues were affecting a plant in Germany.
GSK and other flu vaccine manufacturers such as France's Sanofi Aventis have an opportunity to gain market share at Chiron's expense. The main reason for GSK's investment is the growing demand for flu vaccines throughout the world, according to the UK firm.
"Currently, flu vaccine manufacturers globally produce a total of around 300 million doses annually, but experts predict demand could exceed this figure dramatically by 2015," said GSK Germany in a statement.
GSK is investing €94 million in the new production facility in Dresden, creating 170 new jobs in the next five years. The investment is the largest in the nearly hundred-year history of the Sächsische Serumwerk Dresden, GSK's facility in Saxony.
Construction of a second facility at the site is scheduled to begin in August 2005. Production will then commence in February 2008. The second unit will increase its annual production capacity from 30 million influenza vaccine doses per year currently, to 60 million doses annually before the end of this decade.
Norbert Hehme, managing director of the SSW, said: "In addition to expanding the production capacity for our existing flu vaccine here in Dresden, GSK is committed to developing improved influenza vaccines and new flu vaccine technologies. Our plant in Dresden pays a major part in GSK's plan to become a leading global player in flu vaccination."
Two new buildings will be built on the existing site. One will be equipped to 'state-of-the-art' standards to accommodate the vaccines production process. The second building will be offices, laboratories for quality control and a warehouse.
"Usually vaccine facilities can take up to 5 years to build and be approved for production," said Norbert Hehme. "We will be accelerating the project in view of the increasing demand for flu vaccines globally."
UK biotech plans permanent flu jab
Meanwhile, UK biotechnology company Acambis has announced its own intention to get into the flu vaccine business, with the development of what it claims could be a potentially breakthrough vaccine that could offer permanent protection against influenza, removing the need for yearly injections and, potentially offering protection against influenza pandemics.
One of the reasons for rising use of flu vaccines is fear of the next flu 'pandemic' - outbreaks of new flu strains, often passing to man from animals - that historically have hit every couple of decades, killing millions around the world.
The worst outbreak of the 20th century came in 1918-1919, where the strain known as Spanish flu caused 40-50 million deaths worldwide. Less serious outbreaks occurred in 1957-8 (Asian flu) and 1968-9 (Hong Kong flu), but since then there have been none, leading some to speculate that the next outbreak is just around the corner.
Acambis and the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) in Belgium are working together to develop a vaccine against both A and B strains of influenza, using Acambis' influenza A vaccine candidate that it acquired from Apovia earlier in the year and additional technology licensed from VIB.
The aim of the research collaboration would be to generate a 'universal' vaccine candidate that would protect against both A and B strains of influenza and, more importantly, would not require annual changes to the formulation.
This contrasts with current influenza vaccines that need to be changed, generally each year, to cope with genetic drift, mutations that occur in influenza strains circulating in nature, as well as major genetic shifts that can result in influenza pandemics. The need to change vaccine formulations each year results in delays in initiating vaccine coverage.