HOLLY SPRINGS – Seqirus, a global manufacturer of vaccines, is investing $9 million in an expansion project at its mammoth production facility in southern Wake County.
Seqirus produced more than 21 million doses of flu vaccine last year,  and the new warehouse will allow the company to produce and store more in case of a serious pandemic.
Dr. John Anderson, vice president of operations for Seqirus and director of the Holly Springs plant, said influenza remains one of the top health threats in the world, sending millions of people around the globe to hospitals every year.
“Believe it or not, approximately half a million people – half a million people – die of influenza every year,” Anderson said. “Over 10,000 people die of influenza here in the U.S., with one of the best health systems in the world. We’re playing a role in trying to reduce that suffering.”
He said he expects Seqirus will expand its manufacturing in Holly Springs in the near future, and the company is on track to produce 50 million to 60 million doses a year – more than one third of the U.S. market – at the plant by 2020.
“[It] is a clever virus. It changes all the time,” he said. “Even though you make a vaccine, it changes. So, you’ve got to make a new vaccine six months later, and it changes, and you’ve got to make another one. So, we’re always playing catch up.”
About 10,000 people died of the flu in the U.S. last year, including 219 in North Carolina. So far this year, only five people have died of the flu statewide.
“Less than half the population gets vaccinated. That’s part of the problem,” he said. “You’re only going to get [the flu] once every seven to 10 years, so you think, ‘I don’t need the vaccine,’ until you get it. And then you wish, ‘I wish I would have had it.'”
The plant would also serve a homeland security mission in the case of a pandemic, like the global outbreak that killed tens of millions in 1918, Anderson said.
“If that emerges, we would immediately stop making our seasonal vaccine and switch over all this capacity to be able to respond to the pandemic,” he said. “We have a contract with the U.S. government to do that and supply up to 200 million doses in quite a short time frame.”
Seqirus also was recently approved to produce a new type of flu vaccine tailored for infants, senior citizens and and people with weakened immune systems.
“To make the vaccine more effective, you can also add what’s called an adjuvant,” Anderson said. “It’s like dirt. You add it alongside the virus, and when the body sees it, it recognizes it as something foreign, and it stimulates the immune system to get a better, stronger immune response.”
The expanded warehouse likely will allow more of that vaccine to be stored as well.
Seqirus’ Australian parent, CSL, acquired the Holly Springs plant from Novartis two years ago as part of a $275 million deal for the Novartis vaccine business. About 750 people work at the site, and the warehouse expansion will add up to 10 jobs.
“North Carolina has good scientists, good access to experienced people working in a manufacturing environment,” Anderson said.
Seqiris also has manufacturing plants in the U.K. and Australia.