December 10, 2007 / 4:01 PM / 11 years ago

GE, Novavax team up on pandemic flu vaccine

(Adds share prices)

By Ransdell Pierson

NEW YORK, Dec 10 (Reuters) - The GE Healthcare unit of General Electric Co (GE.N) and Novavax Inc. (NVAX.O) on Monday said they will collaborate to develop a system to manufacture pandemic flu vaccine that will be far speedier and less costly than standard techniques.

Novavax, a tiny U.S. biotechnology company, is already conducting early stage trials of its H5N1 pandemic flu vaccine, using the company’s so-called virus-like particle (VLP) technology to quickly produce the vaccine in a cell culture — growing cells in an artificial medium. Traditional vaccines, by contrast, typically are manufactured in chicken eggs through a time-consuming process.

For its part, General Electric said it would supply plastic disposable bio-reactors that are precertified as meeting standards imposed by regulators.

GE said its disposable equipment would be a far quicker and less expensive method compared with steel tanks and filtration systems now used to make vaccines, which must be thoroughly cleaned and revalidated every time they are used to make batches of a different medicine.

“Instead of using a large plant with steel tanks and tubing and steel filtration systems, we will provide large plastic disposable bags that serve the same purposes,” said Conor McKechnie, a spokesman for GE. “The bags are pre-cleaned and prevalidated.”

Should the feared pandemic flu arise, a vaccine could hopefully be developed against its particular strain within 12 weeks after the strain is identified — without using eggs or live influenza virus — the companies said in a release.

That would represent “as little as half the time, compared with currently available processes,” the companies said.

“With Novavax’s VLP and manufacturing platform, the intention is that it could enable commissioning of a new facility from scratch in approximately two-and-a-half years, half the time for a traditional egg-based vaccine production facility,” and at possibly 60 percent less cost, the companies said.

McKechnie said GE Healthcare for many years has collaborated with drug companies and vaccine makers, providing the traditional steel equipment.

But he said GE is now also able to offer the disposable plastic substitutes, following its purchase in July of a privately held company in New Jersey that developed the equipment.

No financial terms of the GE/Novavax collaboration were provided.

Many health experts believe the world is overdue for an influenza pandemic. Such global epidemics strike three times in a century, on average, when a new strain of flu emerges that humans have no immunity against.

While it is impossible to predict what strain of the virus will trigger a pandemic, the main suspect is the H5N1 bird flu virus that has killed more than 200 people in various countries since 2003. About 60 percent of those infected have died from the virus, although it has not yet mutated into a form that passes easily among humans.

In the case of a pandemic, which could occur in several waves around the planet, the challenge would be having enough vaccine for the world’s 6.7 billion people.

GE and Novavax said as many as 13 billion doses of vaccine could be needed during a pandemic, although the world capacity is at most currently 2.4 billion doses.

Novavax shares were up 28 cents, or 7 percent, at $4.23 in morning trading on the Nasdaq. General Electric, whose products also range from jet engines to light bulbs, rose 13 cents to $37.36.

(Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

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