Thursday, February 1, 2007

Gov't Prepares for Bird-Flu Pandemic

Early signs suggest this year's record supply of flu vaccine could exceed demand, and the potential financial blow to the drug industry could diminish its interest in serving this market just as the U.S. government tries to prepare for a possible bird-flu pandemic. Public health officials and academics who met Thursday at a conference to discuss seasonal- and bird-flu preparation urged the government to commit billions of dollars more toward its bird-flu outbreak response plan. Some worry that without adequate financial incentives from the government, the drug industry may not make the up-front investments needed to ensure its readiness in the event of an emergency.

Johns Hopkins University Epidemiology professor John Bartlett told the conference that the government should make pandemic preparations a priority on the scale of the Apollo space mission of the 1960s. The conference was co-sponsored by several government agencies and drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Gilead Sciences Inc. Even if the government sets aside significant sums of money for bird-flu readiness, private companies such as Glaxo and Novartis AG could lose interest in vaccine development if they don't first see a robust market for their regular flu shots.

Manufacturers shipped an unprecedented 102 million doses of flu vaccine in recent months, largely in response to government policies aimed at encouraging more Americans to get the injections. The government's hope is that by making flu shots routine for more Americans, it will be easier to respond in the event of a bird-flu pandemic.

"We need to recognize that a strong public health response to seasonal influenza will enable a strong public response to pandemic influenza," said Chris Colwell, a director with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which lobbies on behalf of biotech drug makers.

The Department of Health and Human Services wants to be able to provide enough vaccine for the entire U.S. population within six months of a bird flu outbreak - a goal that could take years to reach, according to the agency's secretary, Michael Leavitt.

In the meantime, the government has been encouraging manufacturers to ratchet up their production capabilities by increasing output of traditional flu shots.

Source: ABC News

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