Full Frontal Disclosure:
My travel, accommodations and food (except for the bagel and an extremely necessary cup of tea) were covered by GlaxoSmithKline. They did not require me to write about the trip at all, nor did they pay me, review this post or dictate what I have to say. Which is a really impressive release of control for these folks.
Let me open with – I love vaccines because vaccines save lives. As an asthmatic, I get a flu shot each year because the flu SUCKS. One year I got sick and stayed with my mother. I was having so much trouble breathing that she gave me a baseball to sleep with so that when I woke up suffocating, I could throw it to break a window to wake her up. Flu shot? Yes please. Also, I read The Demon in the Freezer in grad school and found it to be TotallyOmigodTerrifying. Whenever there’s talk of smallpox on the news, I lurk extra close to my husband’s smallpox vaccination scar as if I could receive immunity by proximity.
And so I was super excited to be invited to visit the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) vaccine facility in Pennsylvania, and redonkulously thrilled to get a tour of the packaging plant that required the donning of paper lab coats, haircovers and goggles and a whole procedure where you put your dirty shoe into a clean cloth wrapper and then set it down on the “clean” side of a taped line on the floor. Squee! My inner nerd was plotzing. My outer nerd bemoaning how I look in goggles, and trying really hard not to scratch my itchy nose in their clean, clean room. I mean, it was incredibly spotlessly fresh and clean by my standards, but apparently pretty squalid by theirs. More on their housekeeping rituals in a bit.
Upon arrival, we all gathered in a conference room where our hosts explained what happens at the plant (which has been there since, get this, 1882 when it was the Lancaster County Vaccine Farm, which, if you believe the Internets, was once the world’s largest producer of smallpox vaccine). Here, the folks at GSK take the vaccine ingredients, mix ’em up, and package them. Of course, it’s a much longer story than that, and I’m making it sound about one million times more slapdash than it is, but I’m a writer and no lives are hanging on whether I’m funny or not. This is totally not at all the case with the jobs of any of our hosts. It is IMPERATIVE that they’re funny. No, it’s imperative that they’re careful and accurate.
A couple of highlights from the presentation:
- There are more than 500 quality control steps in the packaging of the vaccines alone.
- It takes 10 months to produce a simple vaccine. That’s produce, not develop.
- More complex vaccines take up to 25 months to produce.
- Some amazing percent (that I didn’t write down) of adults aren’t fully vaccinated because we think of kids when we think of the vaccination schedule. Do you know when you had your last tetanus shot?
To paraphrase site director David Callaert, this job isn’t for everyone. People who don’t want to spend their day following strict protocols and carefully outlined procedures to the letter will probably be happier somewhere else. When you’re producing compounds to inject into healthy people, there is no margin for error or sloppiness. When you are developing a treatment for, say, heart disease, you’re dealing with a sick person. And a treatment that is effective most of the time is a great thing. But when you’re treating the well? You have to nail it every time. So why do we need to treat the well? If you’ve never had the flu, why should you get a flu shot? Well, I’ve never had HIV and if they had a vaccine for it, I’d be there. I haven’t had cancer yet, but would surely vaccinate against it if I could. Why? Because I watched my Rockstar Grandma suffer through kidney, bladder and lung cancer.
This place has an aseptic manufacturing area, which sounds So Freaking Cool. Wisely, we were not allowed within a couple of acres of it, but they did do a little demonstration of some of the gowning procedures that people who work there have to go through to get to their workstations. It begins with donning scrubs, moves on to a sterile outer layer, mouth-hole cover (with optional beard supplemental cover), eye-hole covering, comical hood and gloves. And space boots. All of which you have to put on without touching the outside, or you’ve contaminated them.
They discussed what I’m going to call (for dramatic effect) The Five Pillars of Sterility:
- Facility design: The layout, HVAC and how people move through it.
- Cleaning schedule, plans, materials and methods.
- Gowning: Summary – God help you if you have to pee.
- Aseptic simulation: Constant testing at all phases of the process.
- Monitoring of normal processes: They mentioned that even the air pressure is carefully controlled. It’s higher when you’re in cleaner areas so that if a door opens or something contaminants aren’t sucked in.
How It’s Made
But the best part, of course, was the tour of the facility. Which I can’t show you. But, if you’ve ever seen “How It’s Made,” on the Science Channel you get the gist. Here’s my overview of the process:
Filled and sealed vials are brought into the packaging facility, where a guy in a blue paper dress loads them into a circly-whirly thing, where they spin around a little before moving single-file out and down the line to labeling, where the Most Complicated Label Extruder Ever applies labels and checks each to make sure it is perfect. Then, they go down a ramp (with an area that contains a backlog of vials in case something gets hung up in the label machine so that the line downstream can keep humming) and into another array that checks, lines up, boxes and shoves those informative inserts into the box, which is bound together into bundles of multiple boxes, and packed into bigger shipping boxes. There are more inspection steps than I can name, so I won’t risk spreading misinformation by trying to name any of them. There are lots.
I’ve done my reading and even written a site or two for clients about vaccines and I like ’em. The benefits seem to me to far outweigh the risks, which are low when compared to such deathsports as driving an automobile or eating in restaurants. Far be it from me to tell anyone else what choices to make for their own families, and if I get on a rant about herd immunity and what I think about taking medical advice from Hollywood, we’ll be here all day.
The World According to Spouse
Spouse – who grew up in Soviet Russia, where everyone was considered to be property of the state and therefore routinely vaccinated without discussion – has strong opinions on vaccines. He has consented to letting me share them here. They are as follows:
1) People who decline vaccinations should also have to decline to avail themselves of other modern conveniences such as the Internet, clean drinking water and electricity. Why should they get to pick and choose, when this one actually impacts the health and well-being of others?
2) When people get their driver’s license, they should have to select one of two lines to get out of the DMV: Vaccination or sterilization.
Spouse is popular at cocktail parties. He also hails from a family with serious scientific cred, who’s very impressive qualifications I’d love to brag about here, but they’re private people. Suffice it to say, they know their shit.
In Good Company
It was a great trip – my first of its kind – and I was impressed by the other bloggers. They were personable, funny, and asked great questions. It was a pleasure to meet you all.