Flu vaccine plant in city proposed

Mayor notes medical community in Baltimore, job opportunities

October 13, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Arguing that the city's vast medical assets could be harnessed to reduce the nation's vulnerability to a flu epidemic, Mayor Martin O'Malley asked government leaders yesterday to consider building a vaccine production center in Baltimore.

O'Malley said his administration intends to spend several hundred thousand dollars to explore whether developing vaccines in Baltimore - a move that would almost certainly require federal funding - would create jobs and significantly speed up sluggish vaccine production.

"Imagine the opportunity that this presents for our state and for our city," O'Malley said. "Baltimore and Maryland are better positioned, I would argue, than any other state in the union to be able to become the center of vaccine production."

O'Malley's proposal comes as scientists and elected officials worldwide are beginning to wrestle with the possibility of a pandemic of the deadly avian flu, which some fear could kill millions of people. The need for vaccine, in that scenario, could quickly overtake the capacity to produce it.

In a letter sent to state economic officials yesterday, O'Malley vowed to fund half the cost of a feasibility study to determine whether the manufacturing of vaccine in Baltimore is a worthwhile idea. The study could cost $100,000 to $400,000, depending on its scope.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said he expects his agency will cover the remaining cost of the study. Melissaratos said he believes an inquiry is justified, but he also said the investigation should not be limited to Baltimore.

"Maryland has the potential to become the vaccine production capital of the world," Melissaratos said. "It is an opportunity that we need to pursue."

Regardless of its location, the creation of a vaccine production plant would face huge technical and regulatory obstacles, several experts said. For instance, scientists need millions of fertilized eggs - chicken eggs, usually - to produce vaccines, a requirement that can complicate inner-city production.

Ultimately, the city would hope to tap federal money to build a facility, if it was deemed practical. O'Malley pointed to a $3.9 billion allocation approved by the Senate last month to expand vaccine production and research within the United States. Much of that money, however, has been earmarked to increase stockpiles of antiviral medications.

Public health experts are paying close attention to the bird flu, which is circulating in Southeast Asia. The virus mostly has been transmitted from birds to humans. Efficient human-to-human transmission could quickly spread the virus around the world, said Dr. Alfred Sommer, a former dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"There are alarming trends, and that's what's getting people's attention," said Sommer, who agreed to lead an advisory group on O'Malley's initiative. "The way we presently manufacture traditional flu vaccine is ancient and won't work in a pandemic."

The mayor's letter referred to a draft study developed by the Bush administration that showed the country is unprepared for a widespread flu outbreak. Part of that plan calls for an increase in domestic vaccine production to 600 million doses, more than 10 times the present capacity.

Sommer said about 20 companies were once licensed to produce flu vaccine in the United States but, during the past several decades, the number has dwindled to three that make a form of vaccine that can be injected. Most large pharmaceutical companies no longer feel the product is worth the cost of production, he said.

Still, O'Malley said the medical community already in place in Baltimore and nearby cities, along with financial assistance from the government, could spur a business that has faltered elsewhere. Besides Johns Hopkins, Baltimore is home to the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well two emerging biotechnology parks.

"This is what both of us had in mind when we started these projects," said Jim Hughes, vice president of research and development for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which is scheduled to open its BioPark in West Baltimore next week. "The nice thing about manufacturing is that it creates a good array of jobs."

In addition to employment, a facility could bring millions in investment into the city and state's biotechnology sector, officials said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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