Friday, October 21, 2005

Flu Pandemic Not Yet A "Market Opportunity"

It has been a busy albeit rainy week, but the sun is finally here, as is lots of mail. Without giving a full list, and still putting off that book review i've been promising to write about, and ignoring what i want to say about that television show that was on the other night...

i can at least say with some joy that my November issue of Scientific American arrived in the mail yesterday, yippeee!!!

i haven't had time to read it all, but last night i did manage to get through the article "Preparing for a Pandemic" by W. Wayt Gibbs amd Christine Soares, about the influenza pandemic we're all supposed to be looking forward to.


Now i have no scientific training, and so my ability to critically judge stuff like this is limited, but just lifting a few points from the article is i believe enough to show that this is one issue we should all be thinking about:

  • "Flu pandemics emerge unpredictably every generation or so, with the last three striking in 1918, 1957 and 1968." Now, once you know they're going to happen every generation or so, that qualifies that innocent word "unpredictably" a bit, don't you think?
  • "The most fundamental thing to understand about serious pandemic influenza is that, except at a molecular level, the disease bears little resemblance to the flu we all get at some time." i.e. this is not your garden-variety cough-and-sneeze inconvenience, or as the authors state: "If the virus replicates much faster than the immune system learns to defend against it, it will cause severe and sometimes fatal illness, resulting in a pestilence that could easily claim more lives in a single year than AIDS has in 25." The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people.
  • "Because delays and shortages in producing vaccine against a pandemic are unavoidable, one of the most important functions of national pandemic plans is to push political leaders to decide in advance which groups will be the first to receive vaccine and how the government will enforce its rationing." And later, in case this isn't clear enough: "Once a pandemic goes global, responses will vary locally as individual countries with differing resources make choices based on political priorities as much as on science." Please note that this new opportunity for the ruling class to decide "who will live and who will die" will be operatve not only within, but also between different countries and continents; i.e. while people are talking in terms of "why can't we vaccinate everyone in the U.S.", you can bet your ass that they're not going to be vaccinating all or even most people in Africa.
  • But even for key sectors of the U.S. population there is nowhere near enough flu vaccine at present; once a new flu virus appears it can take as many as 8 months to develop to produce a new vaccine, and "At current production rates, a [vaccine] stockpile would never grow to the 228 million doses needed to cover the three highest priority groups [key government leaders, medical caregivers, workers in flu vaccine and drug factories, pregnant women, and those infants, elderly and ill people already in high-priority groups for annual flu shots], let alone the roughly 600 million doses that would be needed to vaccinate everyone in the U.S."
  • Partly the shortfall is unavoidable with current medical and technological knowhow, but it is also related to the economic system we are all trapped in. "We really don't see the pandemic itself as a market opportunity" in the words of James T. Matthews, who sits on the pandemic-planning working group of Sanofi-Aventis, the world's third lagest pharmaceutical company.
  • The solution according to Anothony S. Fauci, directior of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is simple: "we need to offer a number of incentives, ranging from liability insurance to better profit margins to guaranteed purchases."

So here we are again, stuck in a situation where knowledge and resources are monopolized by a capitalist enterprise, and we are left hoping that the other key capitalist institution - the State - will arrange to make things profitable enough for the capitalists to bother getting their act together to save some lives.

And the stakes? While it is impossible to know for sure which strain will mutate into the next pandemic, the most likely candidate is a little guy called H5N1 (the bird flu virus you've all heard so much about). "Fatality rates in diagnosed H5N1 victims are runing about 50 percent. Even if that fell to 5 percent as the virus traded virulence for transmisibility among people, [World Healh Organization advisor and University of Virginia virologist Frederick G.] Hayden warns, 'it would still represent a death rate double [that of] 1918, and that's despite modern technologies like antibiotics and ventilators."

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