Not all swine flu vaccines are created equally—just ask the Germans. On Monday, Germany launched a massive campaign to inoculate its population against the H1N1 virus, which has already infected 23,000 people there. But media reports revealed the country would employ two vaccination programs: top officials, the military, and other essential workers would get a different—and possibly better—vaccine than the general population.
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel and other government workers would get the Celvapan vaccine, which is “widely seen as safer” than the Pandemrix shot most citizens would receive. Public outrage reached fever pitch after the tabloid Bild accused the government of offering “second-class medicine” to regular people.
There are pros and cons to both Pandemrix and Celvapan, says Chris Richardson, Canada Research Chair in viral vaccinology and therapeutics at Dalhousie University. Pandemrix, he notes, is prepared in hens’ eggs, a time-tested way of making vaccines. Celvapan is made from a cell line derived from monkey kidneys, a much newer technology that allows for faster production. Unlike Celvapan, Pandemrix contains a mercury-based compound as a preservative, though in very small amounts: “It’s estimated a tuna sandwich has more mercury in it,” he says.
In Germany, government spokesperson Ulrich Wilhelm attempted to assure the general public, explaining that “there isn’t a ‘better’ or a ‘worse’ ” vaccine. But Merkel appears to have yielded to the public outcry: she told reporters that she’ll “be seeing her regular general practitioner, will get his advice,” and then have the Pandemrix shot. According to Richardson, she may very well be making a wise health decision: even though Celvapan represents an exciting advance in vaccine production, “if I were a common person, I’d prefer to get Pandemrix,” he says. “It’s tried and true.”