Swine Flu and Eggs

Posted Oct. 29, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

With the death toll from H1N1 flu rising, news that the vaccine against the virus was in short supply predictably led to outrage among the public and lawmakers. One solution is to have the government, rather than private companies, make vaccines. A downside to this approach is that it is costly and a bureaucracy would be created, but not always used.

Although federal officials said 160 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine would be available this month, only 28 million have been produced. Part of the problem is that growing the virus in chicken eggs, a decades-old technique, has been slower than expected and less virus than anticipated has been grown.

Research into alternative ways to make vaccines has been slow and underfunded.

U.S. officials have long known about weaknesses in vaccine production. In 2004, the amount of vaccine against the seasonal flu was cut in half when a British plant was shut down due to contamination.

This year’s problems have nothing to do with contamination or improper operations, but they again highlight the consequences of relying on private facilities, mostly in foreign countries.

Sen. Susan Collins raised these and other concerns in a recent hearing on H1N1 held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the senator asked what the department was doing to shift to cell-based production of vaccines and how quickly this would occur. She also asked about policy changes to ensure that the U.S. can manufacture vaccines domestically to ensure an adequate supply for Americans.

Sen. Olympia Snowe voiced her concerns about the production of the H1N1 vaccine and its shortfall in a letter to Secretary Sebelius. She wondered why, three years after Congress approved $5.6 billion for improved vaccine production technology, the U.S. still relies on chicken egg technology.

Answers to these questions aren’t likely to come in time to fix the H1N1 vaccine supply shortage, which is being addressed, at least partially, by speeding up production. But they must be answered before the next large flu outbreak.

Part of the problem is economic — vaccines aren’t as profitable as other medications. This points to the need for more government involvement in vaccine production. On the other hand, in some years millions of doses of flu vaccine go unused because the flu season is mild and fewer people choose to get vaccination. These unused vaccines represent a large expenditure for little gain, something that some may find hard to justify.

The line around the Bangor Civic Center at an H1N1 vaccination clinic for schoolchildren Wednesday is testament to the need for a readily available supply of vaccines. Lawmakers must find a way to ensure that such a supply exists before the next outbreak.

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