This is where your flu vaccine is made

Take a tour of the largest cell-based flu vaccine factory.

HOLLY SPRINGS—There’s a strong sense of service and of pride in helping people, mixed with cutting edge science, at the Seqirus vaccine production facility in Holly Springs. It’s a huge factory, tucked towards the back of a nondescript industrial park. 600 employees work at the facility, producing 40 million doses of influenza vaccine. The plant is expanding. The vaccines are sent around the world.

But talk with any of the employees and you hear comments like this. “It’s a privilege to know what we do here affects the lives of people across the globe and that’s what motivates us to do what we do” said Mayumi Buckosk, supply chain director.

Buckosk has a more personal relationship with influenza that most of the employees. She knows an eight-year-old boy whose father died from the flu. But the belief amongst all of the employees that their work at the plant saves lives is a driving force here.

“It’s something that gives us purpose and meaning in everything that we do and the decisions we make everyday,” adds Buckosk.

Vaccines used to be grown in eggs. They still are, but the vaccines produced at Seqirus Holly Springs don’t use eggs. The virus is grown in a cell culture inside huge tanks. The Holly Springs site is the largest cell culture manufacturing facility in the world for influenza vaccines.

“It’s a next generation technology because you are growing those cells in a highly automated, controlled, state of the art environment,” said Chad Salisbury, executive director of manufacturing and site head. “Once you have the cell culture, you infect the cells and the virus grows in the cells. And because it’s mammalian and we’re mammalian, it mimics what happens in the natural environment. So it’s a cleaner process, it’s a more controlled process that uses the standard in biotechnology that you see out in the world today.”

The vaccines are designed to protect against four different strains of influenza. The World health Organization gathers flu data from scientists around the world and consults with vaccine manufacturers to work together to determine the makeup of the vaccine.

“The influenza virus we are introducing into the cell culture is the virus that has been identified by the World Health Organization as the predominant strain for the upcoming flu season,” explains Keith Kulowiec, director of technical development. “And then once the virus is introduced, it just starts replicating and because we are growing all of that in a controlled, culture environment, the process is very efficient.”

“The challenge in the process is that there is a lot of material in the cell that we just don’t want; so once we grow the cells we need to purify out everything that isn’t needed,” continues Brian Nunnally, Ph.D., head of quality control. “Once that is finished, we make sure that the material is non-infectious and that it also meets all of our quality standards as well as all of the standards set by the countries where we sell the vaccine.”

Nunnally emphasizes the point about the vaccine being non-infectious several times. You can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine, because the virus is inactivated. Every batch is tested to make sure the virus is inactivated. However, even though the virus is inactive, it is still antigenic material. That means the body will react to it by creating antibodies that are going to neutralize it anytime you come in contact with it. Put another way; once the body has a part of the virus strain it is going to say, “Aha, I get it, that is foreign, I’m going to attack it!” So, the next time the body is exposed to the virus, the body is ready to fight it.