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November 2, 2005
The Flu Plan, Part One: Vaccines
The government's proposed plan for dealing with a flu pandemic is worth some comment, although it's going to undergo mutations just as surely as the viruses do. It's hard to argue with the overall approach, but there are some details that need explaining.
For example, there's a proposed boost for research into vaccine production through cell culture techniques (as opposed to the famous chicken-egg methods), and I think that this is a fine idea. Unfortunately, it was just as fine an idea two or three years ago, and we'd probably be in better shape now if this idea had been pushed back then. Money doesn't convert to time quite as easily in basic research as it does in some other areas (although it doesn't hurt, true). Some of the companies that do work in this area are pointing this out today, in rather testy tones of voice:
. . .so far the government has not backed development of three cell-based vaccines that have received or are close to receiving regulatory approval in the United States and Europe - including one developed by a Meriden (CT) biotechnology company. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services last April funded only one cell-based flu vaccine - $97 million for a vaccine that has not yet been tested in animals or humans.
"I don't know what the hell they are thinking about," said Dan Adams, president and chief executive officer of Protein Sciences. . ."
This is the voice of a man whose company missed out on a $97 million dollar contract, so that has to be taken into account. But it does appear that HHS and the FDA have been overly cautious about moving to cell-culture based vaccines.
But "caution" is a popular word in the vaccine field, in the financial, medical, and legal senses. and that brings up another provision in the President's proposal that I haven't seen anyone else comment on yet: liability protection for vaccine producers. As you might figure, I think that this is on principle a good idea, but the trial lawyers (and some others) will think differently. This will be an interesting fight, but it might take place largely out of sight. "Fight for your right to sue the people who are trying to protect you from bird flu" isn't a very catchy slogan.
My last comment on vaccines in this context is to point out that - cell culture or no cell culture - if we get to the point that we're relying on a vaccine to save people from a pandemic, then we could be in big trouble. There's an inevitable delay in vaccine development and production - months and months and months of delay, and that's when things are really zipping along. Viruses can mutate in the time it takes to fight their previous versions. If we're lucky, the vaccines that are being developed now will have enough protective effect against whatever flu strain might cause a pandemic. But they might well not, and we need to realize that.
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