H1N1 pandemic may lead to a faster bioterror response

The H1N1 influenza pandemic has driven the Department of Defense to develop more rapid ways of manufacturing needed vaccines that have the potential to save lives from potential new disease threats or bioterror attacks.

The DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had a plan to address the H1N1 crisis a month before the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, Defense.gov reports. The effort to develop the United States’ surge capacity for vaccine production, known as Blue Angel, has been in the works since May 2009.

H1N1 turned out to be less a threat than was originally anticipated, but Army Col. Dr. Alan Magill, a program manager in DARPA’s defense sciences office, believes the effort was still valuable.

“The need to demonstrate a response to an urgent situation hasn’t changed, Magill told American Forces Press Service, according to Defense.gov. “We’ve used H1 as an example, a proof of concept. We hope these technologies that are established will move on to address other issues besides influenza.”

After 18 months and $100 million, Blue Angel and the companies that it funds have been behind the creation of new technologies for the rapid development, testing and manufacture of new vaccines.

For the largest program, the Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, companies from for states have begun building facilities that can produce vaccine grade proteins that have been grown in the cells of tobacco plants.

Once the proteins are produced, the goal is for each company to scale up its process to produce 100 million doses of vaccine per month. Existing manufacturers can currently only produce 300 million doses in six months.

“Think about walking through the woods on a rainy day," Magill said, according to Defense.gov. "You walk through on Tuesday and there’s nothing there, and you take the same walk on Wednesday and suddenly there’s a mushroom that’s a foot high and it grew overnight.

"Anything in nature that produces a tremendous amplification of biomass was of interest.“Clearly these weeds - that’s really what tobacco plants are - grow very fast, and that’s what we captured."