Focus on the flu

How serious is the flu vaccine catastrophe? Look at it this way: The illness kills 36,000 people a year, on average, so if flu deaths go up by only 10 percent because of the vaccine shortage, some 3,600 additional people will die, more than died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bush administration had been warned many times that the vaccine manufacturing system was flawed but did nothing about it. Perhaps this was a result of its ideological faith in the ability of the private sector to solve public problems. As we see, that faith is sometimes misplaced.

The main problem is that making flu vaccine is long on necessary regulations and short on profits. As a result, only two manufacturers are in business in this country, each producing about half the needed 80 million doses of vaccine. Now we know what happens when one of them has a big problem.

The solution is for the federal government to be more involved, not less. The first thing it should do is agree to buy up any unused flu vaccines. Flu vaccines don’t keep long and must be thrown out if not sold. Manufacturers are hesitant to get into the business knowing that such risks exist.

The government should also use a system of subsidies or guaranteed purchasing to assure that more companies are involved. There should be five or six companies making flu vaccine in this country, not just two. That way, if one has a Chiron-like problem, it isn’t a public disaster. And the government should invest more in developing new methods of making vaccines, moving beyond the almost anachronistic method that relies on chicken eggs.

But that’s not where the Bush administration’s priorities lie, unfortunately. It’s done nothing to shore up the process for producing vaccines. And, said a scientist quoted this week in the New York Times, it’s spending $283 million a year on flu research and $5.6 billion on research for a vaccine against anthrax and other biological agents, which are purely hypothetical threats.

Ignore a real threat and focus instead on a fabrication. Hmm, sounds familiar.