Comment: How we help prepare Australia for an influenza pandemic

Biotechnology company CSL sources over one million eggs each week to keep Australia stocked with vaccine to combat the potential threat of an influenza pandemic.


The global health community is working urgently to stem the devastating and accelerating Ebola outbreak in Africa.  Fortunately, the risk of an Ebola crisis in Australia is low. The more likely threat for Australia will come from influenza.

Right now, there are several influenza viruses circulating amongst bird populations in Asia that could cause an influenza pandemic.  These viruses are constantly adapting to their environment and the danger is a mutation that enables human to human transmission. When humans become infected with these viruses, the risk of death is high.

“Vaccination is the most powerful counter-measure available in a pandemic situation.”
An influenza pandemic can have global catastrophic consequences. There were three major pandemics in the 20th century. The onset and the time between them are unpredictable. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu epidemic killed over 50 million people. On the island of Fiji, 14% of the population died in just 2 weeks. While modern medicine would help, if this virus were to resurface without us being prepared, the toll would still be high.

The WHO keeps a constant watch on influenza viruses around the world so that governments can act quickly in the event of a serious pandemic threat.  Vaccination is the most powerful counter-measure available in a pandemic situation and is therefore fundamental to pandemic preparedness.

While governments, industry and the WHO have worked together to increase pandemic vaccine production capacity over the past five years, current supply would still only meet about 20% percent of the expected global demand within 6 months of a major pandemic. The only way to guarantee timely access to vaccine supply in a pandemic is through local production.

Australia is one of only 11 countries globally that have an onshore capability to develop and manufacture influenza vaccine.  What’s more, we have the highest vaccine production capacity per head of population in the world.  This means Australia would be able to vaccinate its entire population more quickly than any other country.

CSL is contracted by the Australian Government to be in a constant state of pandemic readiness and to supply sufficient pandemic vaccine for the Australian population, should it be needed.

“Around 90% of influenza vaccines are made using egg-based technology.”
Seasonal influenza vaccine development and manufacturing capacity underpins pandemic preparedness.  The WHO collects and determines the most common and threatening circulating flu viruses and sends them to laboratories like CSL’s in Parkville. These viruses are then converted into “manufacturing seeds” necessary for large scale vaccine production.

Around 90% of influenza vaccines are made using egg-based technology.  A robust egg supply is essential and CSL sources over 1 million eggs every week from a variety of specialist suppliers. This requires a total flock of around 250,000 hens at any one time. They are humanely housed in large, secure facilities (so they themselves don’t get the flu) and fed a special diet to enhance egg quality.

The flu virus is injected into the eggs where it grows rapidly.  The virus is then extracted, inactivated, purified and formulated into vaccine.  We do this twice per year and have the capacity to produce up to 60 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine for Southern and Northern Hemisphere markets.

Our seasonal flu vaccine business ensures that CSL is in a constant state of pandemic readiness.  It gives us the technical capability to develop and manufacture the vaccine, a ready egg supply and an adequately trained and practiced workforce, enabling us to rapidly switch from seasonal manufacture to the production of a pandemic vaccine at the request of the Australian Government.

As soon as the WHO detects and isolates an influenza virus with pandemic potential, we can start work on the manufacturing seed to be ready for vaccine production.  Within 10-12 weeks the first batch of CSL vaccine can be ready for clinical testing. 

Clinical testing can take an additional 6-12 weeks, but if the potential mortality rate is high, the regulatory agencies may decide to focus testing so the vaccine can be deployed more quickly.  Measures to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus in the community are critically important until a vaccine is available.

CSL has two pandemic vaccines that have been clinically tested and are ready for use in people aged 6 months and above: a H5N1 vaccine, which is stockpiled against a bird flu pandemic, and a H1N1 vaccine which we deployed 16 weeks after the swine flu pandemic was declared in 2009. In the latter case, Australia was the first country in the world to have a vaccine ready against this potential threat.

This critical national capability exists because of the vision of the Australian Government, almost a century ago, to establish the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. 

is a guest on tonight’s episode of at 8.30pm on SBS ONE, which explores just how Australia would cope in a hypothetical influenza pandemic situation.

Insight is Australia's leading forum for debate and powerful first-person stories offering a unique perspective on the way we live. Read more about Insight
Have a story or comment? Contact Us

Insight is Australia's leading forum for debate and powerful first-person stories offering a unique perspective on the way we live.
Watch nowOn Demand
Follow Insight
5 min read
Published 23 September 2014 at 6:00am
Source: Insight