While all the talk around the world is about the coronavirus, Seqirus, an Australian company, has quietly developed a new flu vaccine for the U.S. government from its Holly Springs facility near Raleigh.
On Jan. 31, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Seqirus’ vaccine for potential pandemic associated with the H5N1 flu virus, widely known as the bird flu. Seqirus officials say this is the first-ever adjuvanted, cell-based flu vaccine that was developed to target H5N1 if the U.S. had a new strain of the virus, and there was nothing in the marketplace to fight it.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Russell Basser, chief scientist and head of research and development at Seqirus, says the Holly Springs facility can produce as much as 150 million dosages for the U.S. government, when needed. The vaccine will not be available for Seqirus to sell it commercially on its own.
While a typical flu season can result in more than 10,000 deaths, a pandemic can be a catastrophe. “Flu pandemic will happen at some point but we don’t know when,” Basser says.
He added the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that came with the H1N1 virus infected more than 500 million with an estimated death toll of between 50 million and 100 million.
The vaccine, called Audenz, was developed with support from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services umbrella.
Seqirus – the result of a $275 million sell-off of Novartis’ global influenza vaccine business to CSL (OTCMKTS: CSLLY) in 2014 – was the first company in the U.S. to ship off influenza vaccines for the 2019-20 season.
In November, the company announced a $140 million expansion in Holly Springs, doubling down on a separate $9 million expansion announced just a year before. Those expansions have promised to bring the facilities to 475,000 square feet at the 185-acre site. The development is expected to bring approximately 120 jobs to the facility within the next three years, adding to the current workforce of 550 full-time employees and 150 contractors.
As for spread of the coronavirus, Basser says the world is closely watching the development and spreading of the virus, but what may be making it difficult is the full understanding of the virus itself. “We don’t fully understand all the details,” Basser says. “We just don’t know enough about it.”
The government in Wuhan, China, the city at the epicenter of the coronavirus, is effectively in a lockdown since the last week of January. More than 420 people have died in China alone with the Chinese government reporting some 21,000 confirmed cases.