Novartis has revealed its intentions to build a $400 million vaccines unit in the USA, according to an interview with Chief Executive, Daniel Vasella, posted on MarketWatch. The news follows a $221 million contract win for the Swiss giant to produce new flu vaccines for the US government, as the country ramps up its efforts to build an armamentarium against a potential pandemic of avian flu.

The plant will use new cell-based culture technologies to develop the vaccines – for flu in the first instance, although this will likely be expanded to include other vaccines and even biotechnology products such as monoclonal antibodies. Current products use chicken eggs to cultivate the vaccine, which leads to long production cycles and restricts capabilities to respond quickly to a crisis. In contrast, flu cell culture production enables flexible, faster start-up of vaccine manufacturing, and is independent of the availability of eggs, providing a particularly important advantage in the event of an influenza pandemic.

Novartis has been making steady moves into the vaccines arena, with the April acquisition of US vaccine maker Chiron – of which it already owned a significant stake – for $5.4 billion. Chiron already had a substantial contract in place with the US government for an avian flu vaccine but, because of production difficulties at plants in the UK and Germany, is unlikely to fill the order until later on this year.

According to the interview in MarketWatch, Novartis is – as yet – unsure as to where the new facility will be located. However, it has whittled its decision down to three states, with North Carolina being touted as a possible favourite – not the usual biotech hot spots of Massachusetts and California.