With the news today that a vaccine has been developed to counter Bird Flu, the race now begins to produce enough of the drug to immunize those most at risk during a possible pandemic:
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said that although the vaccine that had undergone preliminary tests could be used on an emergency basis if a pandemic developed, it would still be several months before that vaccine was tested further and, if licensed, offered to the public.
“It’s good news,” Dr. Fauci said. “We have a vaccine.”
But he cautioned: “We don’t have all the vaccine we need to meet the possible demand. The critical issue now is, can we make enough vaccine, given the well-known inability of the vaccine industry to make enough vaccine?”
That shot by Dr. Fauci may be out of line. The vaccine industry has the ability to make enough doses. The problem has been both industry and government short sightedness:
The fact of the matter is that, compared to manufacturing drugs or other types of vaccine, producing flu vaccine is an exceedingly high-risk, low-profit, labor-intensive enterprise. Pharmaceutical companies have dumped the product because, in the words of a recent Washington Post article, it “has simply become too much trouble.” Liability costs, real or potential, comprise only part of an economic equation which also includes such factors as government regulation (including price controls), market unpredictability and production challenges unique to flu vaccines.
As the Times article points out, part of the problem is that vaccines need to be incubated using live chicken eggs.
Because the vaccine is made in chicken eggs, “a potential major stumbling block” to successful mass production is the number of eggs farmers can supply manufacturers, Dr. Fauci said.
If manufacturers can overcome such hurdles, the new vaccine could go far in averting a possible pandemic of human influenza, Dr. Fauci said.
Other problems that need to be overcome before the vaccine can be mass marketed include more human trials to determine dosage levels as well as tests to make sure the drug is safe for young children and adults over 65 years of age. This most recent round of tests was performed on healthy adult volunteers under 65.
Under normal circumstances, we’re still probably 3 to 5 years from having a viable vaccine. However, given the urgency of the situation, the drug could be used in an emergency to immunize those most at risk.
Ordinarily in a flu outbreak, at risk individuals would include the very old, the very young, and those whose immune system has been damaged due to diseases like AIDS. Also at high risk for infection are the health professionals who would be treating flu victims. If enough doses could be found to immunize these groups, the death toll for a pandemic could go down significantly.
The question being asked by governments and international health officials is are we going to be given enough time? Given the nature of the crisis, it’s going to be a race between our ability to defend against infection and the virus’s ability to mutate.
At least now we appear to be on the same lap as the bug.