Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Watch the birdies

Peter Sandman (whom I respect) wants me to be nice to the newbies (my reply here), but I can't bring myself to be nice to George W. Today in a speech at NIH he announced he would ask Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency funding "to prepare the country for a possible flu pandemic." Did his health advisors tell him that public health scientists have been warning about a pandemic for years? He's been in there for five years. Wasn't it his job to make sure we were prepared--not getting us ready to be prepared?

The best that can be said for Bush's initiative, is "better late than never." But the best is surely too good. Let's look at the "plan."

Bush wants $250 million to help "foreign partners" train medical personnel, monitor the disease situation and draw up preparedness plans. Bird flu beleaguered countries in Southeast Asia have been begging for this help for a long time, as has WHO and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Precious little has been provided. Suddenly Bush wants to dump a wheelbarrow full on their front lawns. The chance they will be able to make efficient use of this in a timely fashion is small. If they had been provided with this kind of help two years ago we might not be in the fix we are in now, with a panzootic of H5N1 throughout Asia and South Asia. (The irony of providing money for foreign public health infrastructure shouldn't get lost, either, even as Bush presides over a crumbling and still deteriorating public health system here at home.)

Bush also wants $1.2 billion to purchase enough H5N1 vaccine, developed by NIH, to vaccinate 20 million people. But there is no vaccine yet. The experimental batch that went through clinical trials a few months ago showed itself unable to protect people unless unrealistically high doses were used. And the strain it was directed against has already changed, so the best one could hope for would be some residual cross protection. No one knows how effective that would be, but no where near as effective as a vaccine directed against the actual pandemic strain when that arrives. There is also a $2.8 billion request to develop cell culture vaccines instead of conventional egg-based ones. That is already happening (Sanofi-Pasteur) but will take time. R&D money could have been pumped into this obvious need years ago, but the Administration relied on private sector initiative and Big Pharma had no interest in the lower profit vaccine business when it could make high profit Viagra and similar drugs. So the work didn't get done and now we are playing catch up. The bottom line for Big Pharma (the only line it cares about) will be that the public will fund the R&D and the big drug companies will be allowed to privatize the profits. And they are being asked to do it in a hurry, without time for adequate safety testing. So they don't want to take the risk and want immunity from suits.

If the problem is that the market doesn't work for vaccines, stop trying to make it work by artificially creating monopolies and insulating manufacturers from the costs of negligence ("the burden of litigation," in Bush's words). Big Pharma is even richer than Big Oil. It was reported yesterday that Europe's number two drug company, Novartis, has $5 billion dollars of cash flow to play with every year. It just used some of it to buy the vaccine maker, Chiron, which itself just got a huge US government contract to make a bird flu vaccine after they flushed half of the nation's supply down the toilet last year with contaminated production facilities. These guys don't need much help except to chew faster and swallow harder to get all the bucks down.

Then there is $580 million for "pandemic preparedness," including $100 million to help states complete and exercise their pandemic plans. I'm not sure what the other $483 million will be used for, but I thought all the emergency preparedness money already spent since 9/11 (billions) was for this purpose. It now turns out it didn't really make us safer from real threats, like naturally occurring pandemics that occur several times a century. And while Bush talks of strengthening the hospital system, his Republican comrades in the Congress are cutting Medicaid and Medicare, funds that the hospitals depend on to operate.

If Bush really wanted to get us ready for a pandemic, he would get our critical infrastructures ready, especially public health and the health care system. Instead what we got is a proposal to throw money at the problem, with most of it destined to stick to the walls of Big Drug Companies. The public is like the person with a broken leg who is wheeled into the Bush Emergency Room and is told Bush doesn't do broken bones but Doctor Frist and company would be glad to give them a rectal exam.

The threat of a pandemic is serious. This plan isn't serious. It's a distraction to divert attention from Miers, Scooter, Iraq, Katrina and all the other crap Bush has served up. Watch the birdies (they might have the flu) while the other hand is stripping you bare and handing your possessions over to Big Pharma, Halliburton and Big Oil. That's a disgrace.