GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics and Iomai Corp have won contracts from the US Department of Health and Human Services to develop vaccines against bird flu, worth a total of $133 million.

The vaccines selected by the Department all use an adjuvant, which is designed to boost the body’s response to a vaccine. This is important because flu antigen used is in short supply across the globe and, therefore, “a vaccine that uses adjuvant could provide a way to extend a limited vaccine supply to more people," DHHS Secretary Mike Leavitt explained.

GSK has been awarded the largest slice of the pie - $63.3 million – in support of ongoing research using its innovative adjuvant technology alongside antigens to “induce a strong immune response” via a pandemic vaccine.

According to the company, the funds will help drive the research and development needed to bring to market “antigen-sparing pre-pandemic and pandemic vaccines with adjuvant,” which will help the US government grow limited supply of pandemic flu vaccines in North America.

Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics has been granted $54.8 million in support of its efforts to bring to market the antigen-sparing capabilities of its MF59 adjuvant. This latest HHS contract, the fourth awarded to the company so far, will help it evaluate the safety and efficacy of MF-59, and will support the design, equipment and validation for a US-based production facility in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

$14.4m for Iomai's patch

The Department has also awarded Iomai $14.4 million to help it complete Phase I clinical trials of its product - a dose-sparing patch for use with a pandemic influenza vaccine. Furthermore, if the product gets a license, the total cost reimbursed by DHHS, plus the fixed fee, is estimated to be $128 million, according to the company.

The move to build stockpiles of vaccine by the DHHS is in response to growing fears that the deadly H5N1 strain of the flu virus will make the leap to becoming transmissible between humans. If this occurs, worst-case-scenario estimates put the number of potential deaths from the resultant pandemic at millions.