Down With the Flu


It sometimes almost seems that George W. Bush doesn’t know what he’s talking about. During last week’s debate, for example, moderator Bob Schieffer asked him, “Suddenly we find ourselves with a severe shortage of flu vaccine. How did that happen?”

Bush replied: “Bob, we relied upon a company out of England to provide about half of the flu vaccines for the United States citizen, and it turned out that the vaccine they were producing was contaminated. And so we took the right action and didn’t allow contaminated medicine into our country.”

And the president continued: “The CDC, responsible for health in the United States, is setting those priorities and is allocating the flu vaccine accordingly. We have a problem with litigation in the United States of America. Vaccine manufacturers are worried about getting sued, and therefore they have backed off from providing this kind of vaccine.”

In fact, the company, Chiron, is a U.S. firm with a manufacturing site in Liverpool, England, and U.S. regulators had OK’d the flu vaccine. It was British health inspectors who stopped it. As for the Centers for Disease Control, its authority to allocate flu vaccine supplies is limited, and the vaccine situation essentially is unregulated, leaving Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, the CDC director, making this pathetic statement: “We’re sorry for the people who need flu vaccine and may not be able to get it this year.” She added, “That’s disappointing for all of us.” She suggested that people who feel sick stay home and cover their mouths when coughing.

There’s some truth to Bush’s claim that companies don’t want to make vaccines because they’re afraid of suits, but the most important reason is that the marketplace, a cornerstone of Bush doctrine, doesn’t provide them enough profit. Thirty years ago, there were 25 companies making vaccines of one sort or another. Today there are five. Medical experts suggest that the situation can be fixed by abandoning the free market, and having the government subsidize the flu vaccine by either instituting a price floor or buying outright a set amount of the year’s production.

That would be a straight subsidy, with the government paying the companies at a price they set, because another point in Bush doctrine, institutionalized in the latest Medicare legislation, is that the federal government is prohibited from negotiating drug prices with the manufacturers in the hopes of reducing costs. Currently the CDC buys a relatively small amount of flu vaccine from the private sector, but it is nowhere near enough to meet the demand. The U.S. is on the verge of benefiting from a new technology that would permit a faster and surer manufacture without use of the hundreds of thousands of chicken eggs now employed in making vaccines. The government has increased research from $47 million in fiscal 2002 to $283 million currently.

This is a drop in the bucket compared with the $5.6 billion Bush has promised for developing vaccines for anthrax and other possible biological warfare weapons. “They’re creating a very expensive program against diseases that don’t exist anywhere in the world,” Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt, told The New York Times over the weekend.

Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese, David Botti, and Nicole Duarte