Solvay, GlaxoSmithkline and Novartis have become the latest top pharmaceutical companies to win lucrative contracts from the US government as it prepares for the threat of a influenza pandemic.

All the contracts involve applying new manufacturing technologies to improve the supply of influenza vaccines, including for pandemic flu strains, that are based on cell culture.

Solvay was awarded a $299 million contract, while GSK got $275 million and Novartis stands to receive $220 million. Two other companies also got federal funding, with MedImmune standing to receive $170 million and DynPort Vaccine $41 million.

Current chicken egg-derived vaccines production requires several months of logistics for ordering and receiving eggs. This lead time can hinder the response to unanticipated demands such as the discovery of pandemic strains, production failures and seasonal influenza virus strain changes.

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.

The US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt, said the aim is to provide 600 million flu vaccine doses – enough to vaccinate every individual in the USA - within six months of a pandemic breaking out.

The investment programme also answers concerns in the USA that the national supply of seasonal and pandemic flu vaccine relies on manufacturing sites based overseas, and the aim is to encourage a network of sites that will bring production within US borders.

The DHHS has been sensitive to this issue since manufacturing problems at a Chiron plant in the UK in 2004 wiped out half the USA’s seasonal flu vaccine stockpile for that year.