Secret Egg Programs For Swine
Flu Vaccines Are Like Military Labs
Nestled in and around a scenic agricultural belt are secret facilities
that don't take kindly to visitors.
"Keep Out" reads a sign near the gated entrance at
one site. Some of the stark, windowless warehouses require electronic
pin codes and hazmat-style jumpsuits to enter. A sign on a metal
gate ominously warns that it is a "Disease Control Area."
Trespassers could bring a swift response from police geared up
to fight bio-terrorism.
These aren't government labs, military facilities or weapons
They are egg farms.
At clandestine farms across Pennsylvania, thousands of roosters
and hens have been toiling away for months in confidential conditions
normally reserved for important government ops. Their mission:
Fertilize enough eggs to keep supplies of swine-flu vaccine flowing.
Fertilized chicken eggs are a central ingredient in the making
of flu shots. They serve as miniature incubators that help the
virus multiply before it is inactivated and turned into vaccine.
As fears of a pandemic have grown in recent years, the U.S. government
has helped finance the formation of extra chicken flocks to ensure
enough eggs would be available for emergency vaccine production.
Sanofi-Aventis SA, a large vaccine maker, has been using as many
as 600,000 eggs a day in its global swine-flu-vaccine production.
GlaxoSmithKline PLC was using 800,000 a day at the peak of its
production. Manufacturers get very few doses of swine-flu vaccine
per egg -- from less than one to four.
In 2005, the U.S. classified these chicken barns as part of the
nation's "critical infrastructure," giving them a kind
of top-secret status. The secrecy is owing to worries that flu-related
egg farms could be targeted for terrorist attacks or struck by
The government wanted a "secure system to protect these
birds," with "very strict conditions for the entry and
exit of people and product," said Robin Robinson, an official
at the Department of Health and Human Services who masterminded
the secret egg program. "If we had no vaccine now it would
be a very bad thing."
To ensure it had enough eggs to meet pandemic-level demand, the
government invested more than $44 million in the program over
five years; more than 35 farms are now involved in this feathered
No signs advertise the farms' involvement in the program, and
visits from the outside world are discouraged. The government
won't disclose where the farms are located, and the farmers are
told to keep quiet about their work -- not even the neighbors
are to know.
"If you were to drive through an agricultural area that
had a lot of egg farms, I doubt that you could tell the difference
between one of ours and one of anyone else's," said Rich
Wisniewski, deputy director of purchasing services at Sanofi,
which operates a large vaccine factory in northeast Pennsylvania.
"The difference is when you try to get access to those facilities,"
he said. Visitors must be accompanied by someone from Sanofi.
Anyone entering the barns must wear a special hooded jumpsuit
and step in a sanitizing foot bath, to ensure that diseases aren't
passed to the birds. Trucks that deliver food and pick up eggs
have to disinfect their wheels before entering the farms, which
must be located within a day's drive of the vaccine factory.
The farms aren't guarded, but police keep watch over them, Mr.
"Do law enforcement at the local, state and federal level
know they are there? Yes," he said in a phone interview,
adding that police would quickly be on the scene if there was
intelligence that said there was some kind of threat, including
a "bio-terrorist-type threat." So far, no such incidents
have occurred, he said.
Many aspects of the program are classified. The breed of hen?
"That's proprietary," said Mr. Robinson. The rooster-to-hen
ratio? "Proprietary." The number of eggs produced each
year? Also proprietary. Mr. Robinson would say only that the egg
suppliers are located in the "mid-Atlantic" region.
He said some of the farmers are Amish.
Phone calls to egg farms in the mid-Atlantic region led to Pennsylvania
Dutch Country, where many Amish people live. Farmers in the area
identified several farms as suppliers for swine-flu vaccine, but
the farms were quick to hang up when contacted.
"I'm sorry, we can't comment on that," said a man at
one farm, declining to give his name. "Actually, we're not
allowed -- we don't do interviews due to security reasons,"
said a woman at another farm, also declining to give her name.
A visit to one of the farms in Pennsylvania proved cryptic. A
voice on an intercom at the main gate said the owner would come
out to answer questions, but when a gray-haired man in a brown
jacket appeared, he said little. He confirmed it was an egg farm
but said he couldn't "confirm or deny" whether it supplied
eggs for swine-flu vaccine. Asked about the obvious security measures,
he said they were meant to keep the birds "free of disease."
He declined to give his name.
Behind the gate, a semitruck was parked against one of the long
barns. A fence surrounded the perimeter, with signs warning that
it was "Private Property -- No Trespassing."
The eggs in the government program are produced under exacting
guidelines. Mr. Robinson said the chickens are given special food
made of corn or millet, with carefully controlled salt levels
(too much salt can change the shape of the eggs or the number
laid). The temperature and humidity in the barns are constantly
monitored. And when the days grow shorter in the winter, the lights
are left on longer, because light stimulates egg laying.
A hen typically lays an egg a day, whether it is fertilized or
not. Eggs that are scrambled and eaten with toast are typically
unfertilized. The kind used for vaccine need to be fertilized;
vaccine makers inject flu viruses into the fluid surrounding the
chicken embryo, where they multiply before being extracted, killed
and blended into flu shots.
Secret government work appears to be a good deal for Pennsylvania's
roosters. One rooster usually serves a harem of about 15 hens,
keeping track of them in a crowd of thousands, said Gregory Martin,
a poultry expert at Penn State Cooperative Extension, which provides
educational programs for the agriculture industry. He said: "It's
an open-floor system -- it's like the biggest dance floor you
It's a different story for the hens. After nine months of service,
they are typically euthanized because they can no longer lay "optimal
eggs," Mr. Robinson said. "They've served their government,"
January 15, 2010