With indications that the upcoming flu season might be more severe than usual, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday to advance development of a universal serum and accelerate vaccine production.
Trump called for an interagency task force to look into alternative vaccine production methods and additional vaccine capacity and technologies, as well as decreasing the nation's reliance on methods that involve growing the virus in eggs.
Growing the live flu virus in eggs has been the predominant means of mass manufacturing the flu vaccine for more than 70 years, accounting for more than 90% of the estimated 160 million doses produced annually.
But critics contend the egg-based production process is too slow, taking roughly six months to manufacture enough vaccine for an average flu season. That could leave the country vulnerable to a potential pandemic and leave the vaccine ineffective to sudden mutations of the flu strain.
That happened during the 2013-14 flu season, when a mutation in the flu strain occurred three months into that year's vaccine production process. Manufacturers could not make enough of a vaccine to combat the mutated strain in time, which left that season's batch around 23% effective compared to around 50% in normal years.
Experts recently have warned that the nation's health system isn't prepared for a pandemic. The president's Council of Economic Advisers on Thursday estimated the economic damage caused by a pandemic could range from $413 billion to $3.79 trillion, resulting in more than half a million deaths and up to 4.3 million hospitalizations.
The CEA report estimated a cell-cultured vaccine could improve vaccine effectiveness by more than 10% and a recombinant vaccine could improve effectiveness by 30% over an egg-based vaccine in years when H3N2 is the predominant virus.
In a call with reporters on Thursday, senior administration officials said there was no funding allocated toward the order.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already cautioned there are indications that this year's flu season will be harsh. The agency predicted H3N2 will be a dominant strain. Vaccines are usually less effective against that strain, which could lead to more hospitalizations.