Before the development of cell culture, many viruses were propagated in embryonated chicken eggs. Today this method is most commonly used for growth of influenza virus. The excellent yield of virus from chicken eggs has led to their widespread use in research laboratories and for vaccine production. In fact the vast majority of influenza vaccines – both inactivated and infectious – are produced in chicken eggs. How is influenza virus propagated in eggs?
The illustration below shows a cutaway view of an embryonated chicken egg. The different routes of inoculation into the egg are shown, as well as the different compartments in which viruses replicate.
For propagation of influenza virus, pathogen-free eggs are used 11-12 days after fertilization. The egg is placed in front of a light source to locate a non-veined area of the allantoic cavity just below the air sac. This is marked with a pencil. After all the eggs have been ‘candled’ in this way, a small nick is made in the shell at this position using a jeweler’s scribe. Next, a hole is drilled at the top of the egg with a Dremel motorized tool. If this is not done, when virus is injected, the pressure in the air sac will simply force out the inoculum.
After all the eggs have been nicked and drilled, they are inoculated with virus using a tuberculin syringe – a 1 ml syringe fitted with a 1/2 inch, 27 gauge needle. The needle passes through the hole in the shell, through the chorioallantoic membrane, and the virus is placed in the allantoic cavity, which is filled with allantoic fluid. The two holes in the shell are sealed with melted paraffin, and the eggs are placed at 37 degrees C for 48 hours.
During the incubation period, the virus replicates in the cells that make up the chorioallantoic membrane. As new virus particles are produced by budding, they are released into the allantoic fluid. To harvest the virus, the top of the egg shell – the part covering the air sac – is removed. We used to have a special tool to do this, which was placed over the egg. When the handle of this tool is squeezed, it makes a neat crack around the top of the egg. It was then easy to remove the flap of shell with tweezers. The shell membrane and chorioallantoic membrane are pierced with a pipette which is then used to remove the allantoic fluid – about 10 ml per egg. Sufficient virus may be produced in one or two eggs (depending on the viral strain) to produce one 15 microgram dose of vaccine.
We used to grow so much influenza virus that a large walk-in warm room was used as an egg incubator. When you opened the door of the incubator and heard peeping, it meant that someone had left unused eggs too long and they had hatched. Then you were left with the task of catching the evasive chicks.