Saturday, May 06, 2006

Vaccine initiative: good "in principle"

Five pharmaceutical companies just got big contracts to work on cell culture based vaccine technology. Big, as in one billion dollars among them, big. These are said to be 5 year contracts, so this isn't the quick fix we might need if a pandemic strain develops in the next couple of years. But in principle, it is the right thing to do. Let me start with the "in principle" part.

Egg-based vaccine production is not going to be able to respond quickly or with enough vaccine to protect the world's population from a pandemic virus, whether H5N1, another influenza A subtype or some different microbe altogether. For viruses, where antibiotics don't work, immunization is the surest form of protection. CIDRAP has a good summary of the advantages of cell-based vaccines:
It takes about 6 months to grow seasonal flu vaccines in eggs, and the eggs must be ordered well in advance. Growing vaccines in laboratory cell cultures promises to be a somewhat faster and much more flexible approach. The method is already used for a number of other vaccines, such as polio, hepatitis A, and chickenpox.


With cell-based production, companies can skip the step of adapting the virus strains to grow in eggs, the HHS statement said. In addition, the method will make it possible to meet increased needs in case of a shortage or pandemic, since cells can be frozen in advance and large volumes can be grown quickly, officials said.

Cell-based methods also sidestep the risk of loss of egg supplies because of various poultry diseases. Such methods also eliminate the drawback that people who are allergic to eggs can't receive vaccines grown in eggs. (CIDRAP)
This is still undeveloped technology for producing influenza vaccine because it never received the proper attention from government and the pharmaceutical industry had more profitable targets like Viagra or anticholesterol drug look-alikes. Why bother with vaccines? While not surprising, it tends to put a bit of the lie to Big Pharma's claims of public spiritedness and commitment to public welfare. Not that anyone believes that anyway, unless they are brain dead or CongressThings taking the sweet medicine of campaign handouts and other perks. In any event, investing in vaccine technology is a good idea, even if it is woefully late in the game to wake up. A good idea. In principle.

The catch here is that the administration suggesting this is also one of the most monumentally incompetent bunch of Keystone Kops the nation has seen in a very, very long time -- maybe EVER. Can we trust them to do ANYTHING right? Will the $1 billion even be spent properly and will the companies involved be held accountable? No one else in this administration is held accountable. Why will this be different?

It's not the amount of money I worry about. It's the bigger picture. While $1 billion is a lot of money, it pales in comparison to what we spend on other astounding screw-ups. Money for this initiative is contained in a supplemental emergency spending bill for the next credit card installment for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- $92.5 billion. Bush said he'll veto the bill if it contains additional monies stuck on by CongressThings for pet projects, but everyone knows is a charade because the money will be eliminated in a House - Senate Conference Committee. This just gives Bush a chance to grandstand as a fiscal conservative:
"Congress has got to be wise about how they spend the people's money," Bush said at Frager's Hardware on Capitol Hill. "They've got to make sure the supplemental comes to me at a rate that I'll accept." (AP)
Wise about spending other people's money? The $1 billion for five years of vaccine development being given to the most profligate and greedy industry in the world -- $0.2 billion a year -- is less than one day's worth of war money going up in smoke and cascading down as blood. More than $ 0.2 billion a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Has it made us safer than starting three years ago on cell-based vaccine work? Has it made us safer than investing $ 0.2 billion a day on making our health departments and social service systems work -- not work better, but work at all? Has it made us safer than giving every child in the world immunizations for the next 90 plus years (because it's that much money), thereby dramatically reducing infectious epidemic disease for us and doing the right thing as well?

These questions aren't rhetorical. They are real questions. But they also answer themselves. These people are privileged, inveterate liars, corrupt profiteers, and world class incompetents* who as a matter of course and a "God given right" take the lives of others for granted. Nothing could be more obvious to anyone whose eyes aren't closed.

*Partial list of decomplishments: war on Afghanistan, war on Iraq, corrupt failure of the "rebuilding" of Afghanistan and Iraq, spectacularly failed Katrina response, Medicare Part D, destruction of CDC, destruction of CIA, turning US military into Paper Tiger, making US international moral pariah, destruction of US moral authority in the world, made US laughingstock of world of science with support for Intelligent Design, opposition to evidence for anthropogenic climate change and blatant intrusion of politics into science policy, erasure of separation of church and State, sell out to big business and the Christian Right minority, quotas and affirmative action for Christian Conservatives in government, unprecedented lobbying scandal, . . .