It has been reported that a large batch of seasonal flu vaccine which was to have been delivered and used in 18 countries in Europe has been found to have been infected with the deadly avian flu virus in live form. Fortunately, this was discovered before anyone was in danger. But if this problem had not been found as quickly as it was and these vaccines had been distributed and administered to patients, an avian flu pandemic could have begun, and the death toll could have numbered into hundreds of thousands.
An investigation is under way at the research facility in Austria. Baxter International, the pharmaceutical company who owns the facility where the problem occurred, has issued a statement confirming that a batch of flu vaccine did contain the live avian flu virus designated as H5N1.
A researcher discovered the lethal contamination when laboratory animals that he had injected with the flu vaccine suddenly took ill or died. The avian virus will become lethal when it is mixed with the usual flu virus found in the flu vaccines. This process known as re-assortment, and is exactly what public health organizations are afraid may happen in the wild. The laboratory created the perfect storm of conditions in a test tube.
It is crucial to note that we are not talking about a simple mistake, certainly not one to be buried on the back pages of the Internet. This could have been a world threatening, black plague level event here. A lab mistake created the very thing that we are trying to avoid. As frightening as it is that we dodged a bullet, it was a successful dodge. While the researchers lose points for getting a bit too close to mad scientist tech, the screening and security procedures get high marks.
This lab had the dangerous avian flu virus for the simple reason that they are engaged in research to head off any epidemic that might be caused by that virus. The thing to take home here is that there are layers upon layers of testing and control on every vial of vaccine. The tracking and quality control in a reputable and well run company is something on which we can rely.
Quality controls are a big part of flu vaccine production, as well as a mandated part of manufacturing in most, if not all, of the industrialized world. Most of the problems that are discovered are not of this magnitude, or have the potential to be so deadly. But in looking for the small mistakes, the large ones tend to get caught. And for that we should be thankful.