An interview with Dr Othmar Engelhardt

January 2020

Dr Othmar Engelhardt is a Principal Scientist in the Influenza Resource Centre at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC). He is also a member of the Microbiology Society and, in this interview, tells us more about how his research contributes to vaccine production.

Othmar Main.jpg

Tell us more about your research.

I work as a Principal Scientist in the Influenza Resource Centre at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), a centre of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Our laboratory is one of four World Health Organization (WHO) Essential Regulatory Laboratories (ERLs) that work within the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System. The ERLs contribute to and participate in biannual WHO influenza vaccine composition consultations, where recommendations are made on which influenza virus strains should be in next season’s influenza vaccine.

How does your research contribute to vaccine production?

To support the production of influenza vaccines, we generate so-called candidate vaccine viruses (CVVs), i.e. viruses which can be used in vaccine production. Many human influenza viruses do not replicate well in substrates typically used for vaccine production such as hen's eggs or cultured cells. Therefore, CVVs are usually made in a reassortment process between two viruses; a virus representing the circulating human viruses which are recommended for inclusion in the vaccine; and a laboratory-adapted strain that confers improved production characteristics.

Why is this scientific work important?

We generate reagents required for the potency testing of inactivated influenza vaccines. New reagents are needed every time a new influenza virus strain is included in the vaccine therefore; the ERLs make antigen and antiserum reagents twice a year, for the northern and southern hemisphere vaccine production campaigns. Calibration of every new antigen reagent is performed in collaboration between the four ERLs. We then distribute CVVs and reagents to vaccine manufacturers worldwide.

NIBSC is also an official medicines control laboratory and, as such, we perform the independent testing of lots of vaccines before they are released onto the market for use (so-called batch release) to assure safety and quality.

Finally, we conduct research in areas related to influenza vaccines with the aim of improving production, testing and evaluation of vaccines. For instance, we are developing new potency assays for influenza vaccines and have been working on improved CVVs for many years. To aid the assessment of the immunogenicity of existing and new vaccines, we are involved in international efforts to standardise relevant assays, and to explore the provision of new serology standards.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].