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Vaccine Production May Fail in Flu Pandemic

Al Thomas, production manager at Sanofi Pasteur in Swiftwater, Pa., says the method for making vaccines hasn't changed substantially over the past 50 years.
Richard Harris, NPR
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Al Thomas, production manager at Sanofi Pasteur in Swiftwater, Pa., says the method for making vaccines hasn't changed substantially over the past 50 years.

The flu vaccine that millions of Americans get each year actually starts coming to life in a hen house.

When production is in full swing at the only major flu vaccine manufacturing facility in the U.S., Sanofi Pasteur, trucks carry hundreds of thousands of specially fertilized eggs across the bridges of Swiftwater Creek, Pa., every day. Hens and roosters at Cornell University produce the eggs, which act as incubators for the flu virus injected into them at Sanofi Pasteur.

The vaccines eventually produced through this method are good at protecting people from the routine influenza that sweeps the globe every winter. But the current technology may not be up to the task of protecting people from a brand new strain of deadly flu -- a much-feared pandemic. A look at the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of this decades-old technology.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.