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Outdated vaccine production fed swine flu hysteria

Post by Kim Bradford on July 5, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
July 2, 2010 3:18 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Health officials, scrambling to respond last year to outbreaks of a never-before-seen virus, badly misjudged demand for the swine flu vaccine.

The federal government ordered nearly 200 million doses – double the amount of seasonal flu vaccine produced each year.

The anticipated demand never materialized, and now the government faces the prospect of having to chuck more than 43 percent of the supply that has expired or will soon.

In hindsight, the clamor for vaccine looks foolish. But emerging pandemics don’t lend themselves to official caution. The first rule of knocking down an infectious disease outbreak is: Better an overreaction than getting caught short.

Had U.S. officials shown less resolve, they might have fueled greater hysteria among a public hearing daily about the threat of this new, dreaded strain of flu.

As it was, the swine flu vaccine proved less popular than expected because the swine flu proved less deadly than feared. By the time vaccine was widely available, many Americans had already been sick and lived to tell about it.

Blame the antiquated, egg-based vaccine production method. Use of chicken eggs to grow vaccines is 50-year-old technology that is slow under the best of circumstances. It proved slower than usual in the case of swine flu vaccines.

The U.S. reliance on the egg-based method led to vaccine shortages and helped feed public panic. It also helped create a glut of vaccine. Doses were already in production by the time health officials realized that they wouldn’t need as much of the stuff as they thought.

Faster vaccine manufacturing methods exist. The leading alternative grows viruses in cultured cells, which aren’t prone to the contamination and reliability problems that plague egg methods. The cell-based method cuts production time in half and can produce bigger batches of vaccine.

Federal investment allowed one vaccine maker last year to open a U.S. plant that soon employ cell-based technology. But other companies have abandoned plans for such plants.

The next pandemic might not be so tame. The ability of the U.S. to respond in a decisive yet measured way depends on its capability to turn out large quantities of vaccine quickly and to turn off the spigot sooner.

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