Last month Greg Walden caught the H1H1 (“swine”) flu, and he wasn’t happy about it. He also isn’t happy about the way the government handled the swine flu epidemic.
Yesterday the 2nd District Republican grilled federal officials in front of a House committee on why there’s a shortage of swine flu vaccine after the government earlier said there’d be plenty.
“We had testimony Sept. 15 from [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius and everything seemed to be on track and fine,” Walden asked HHS Assistant Secretary Nicole Laurie. “So, explain – who, did the manufacturers, weren't they straight with you? What's this rosy picture piece?" (See Walden’s question and Laurie’s response here)
It’s a good question, and a fair one. But if Walden really wants to get to the bottom of the swine flu vaccine mess he should haul a few drug company CEOs in front of his committee and ask them some pertinent questions.
Especially: “Why are you still using an antiquated technology to produce flu vaccine?”
The present method for making flu vaccine – growing the virus in chicken eggs – is the same that was used in the 1950s. A faster method is available: growing the virus in cultures of mammalian cells. Using that technology it’s possible to produce vaccine by the vat instead of a pint at a time.
Yet the federal Food and Drug Administration is just now getting around to approving the first cell-cultured flu vaccine for the American market – and that vaccine is for the regular seasonal flu, not swine flu.
Way back in April, the New York Times foresaw there wouldn’t be enough vaccine to deal with the coming H1N1 pandemic because of reliance on the time-consuming and archaic chicken-egg method. It noted that the federal government had awarded “$1.3 billion, spread among several manufacturers, to develop ways of producing the vaccine in vats of animal cells rather than in eggs. … The results so far have been mixed. Solvay, which was awarded the biggest federal grant, nearly $300 million, decided it was economically too risky to build a flu vaccine plant in the United States.”
Only one flu vaccine manufacturer, Novartis, so far has committed to building a cell-culture plant in the US. “The federal government is providing nearly $500 million in construction costs and guaranteed vaccine purchases,” the Times noted.
The drug makers are dragging their feet for the usual reason – money. Flu vaccine isn’t a high-profit item, and every year you have to gear up to produce one for a different flu strain. From the bottom-line standpoint, it makes more sense to invest in new drugs to cure erectile dysfunction than in new technologies that could stop a flu pandemic.
The swine flu snafu has conservatives asking, “If the government can’t even run a vaccination program, how can it run the health care system?” To me, it raises another question: “Does it make sense anymore to have a health care system that’s driven by the profit motive?”