The US government has awarded Novartis a contract worth up to $486 million over eight years to build a manufacturing facility to provide influenza vaccines for use in case of a pandemic.

The plant, which will be built at Holly Springs, North Carolina, will have the capacity to manufacture 150 million doses of vaccine within six months of an influenza pandemic being declared, the Swiss major says. The contract with the US Department of Health and Human Services “reinforces the significant financial and technology investments we have already committed to Holly Springs," noted Andrin Oswald, chief executive of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.

He added that by 2012 the site will “provide jobs for more than 300 highly skilled people with the capability to produce cell-based seasonal flu vaccine, pre-pandemic vaccine”. Novartis also noted that a major advantage of Holly Springs' future influenza cell culture production is that it will not rely on the availability of eggs.

The contract also requires Novartis to provide two commercial-scale annual lots of pre-pandemic vaccine for a minimum of three years. In addition, the HHS has the right to exercise options to purchase additional influenza vaccine over 17 years.

Avian flu virus is currently considered the most likely source of the next pandemic - and it is lethal to both chickens and their eggs. Without eggs, Novartis concluded, “traditional influenza manufacturing techniques cannot produce vaccines, so the Holly Springs flu cell culture production capabilities would be a vital alternative”.