Mike the Mad Biologist

A couple of days ago I was talking with a long-time reader who couldn’t understand why those Democrats who favor healthcare reform weren’t beating the drug companies over the head with the failure to produce enough swine flu vaccine. After all, if you’re a drug manufacturer, you should be able to produce drugs. Said reader made an argument (albeit more colorfully) similar to Steve Benen’s (italics mine):

Taken together, it seems the president immediately recognized the seriousness of a public health issue, mobilized officials, launched a public information campaign, and ordered the creation and distribution of a vaccine. The White House sought out all the right advice, from all the right people, and acted quickly. This isn’t my area of expertise, but it sounds like the White House has been responding to the H1N1 problem exactly the way it should.

So, what’s the problem? Apparently, HHS relied on estimates from manufacturers about the speed and supply of a vaccine, and the manufacturers were overly optimistic about what they could produce. The private companies reported in July they would have 120 million doses available by this week. They were off by about 97 million.

Counting on manufacturers’ assurances, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, may have been “naive.” Perhaps. But it was obviously outside the control of the administration….

When we think about government failures on public emergencies — the response to Hurricane Katrina, for example — we see certain characteristics, such as negligence, incompetence, tardiness, and ignorance. None of these concerns seems to apply to the administration’s handling of the H1N1 emergency.

This would be a reasonable assessment of the situation. But never fear! Of course, conservative wackaloons like Bill Kristol can find a way to make the fatuous seem to be the obvious:

It’s an amazing feat that she’s done and now she’s pushing this bill, this huge government take over of the health care system at the moment when we have an experiment, an ongoing experiment in government health care–the swine flu epidemic–an emergency the president called it.

If you like how the government’s run swine flu with lines and cues and promises that haven’t come through in terms of having the vaccines available–if you like the government’s swine flu program, you’ll love Pelosi-Care….

Granted, Juan Williams pointed out that the problem was that the drug manufacturers didn’t make enough vaccine. But, unfortunately, for too many, this will be a cognitive leap too far. The vaccine manufacturers will try to obscure the issue: they’ll claim that the process was the same as previous years, and who could possibly know that vaccine production would come 85% under target? (Never mind that we almost never hit vaccine production targets).

In a sane polity, we would wonder why pharmaceutical conglomerates didn’t set aside some of their enormous profits to overproduce the swine flu vaccine, so that, no matter what happened, there would be enough vaccine. But we have a discourse where conservatives–the people who want to privatize everything–blame the failure of private companies on the government, and are not hounded for being drooling imbeciles. Politically, drug companies have no reason to engage in good behavior–there are no political consequences for not doing so. Clearly the Democrats, including President Hopey Changey, have no interest in taking on Big Pharma.

In such an environment, if swine flu turns out badly, somebody will have to take the fall, and I fear that somebody will be the CDC, which has acted admirably during this crisis.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Jase
    November 6, 2009

    Having worked at two swine flu mini-clinics in the past week, mini because we received so few doses, I definately blame the manufacturers.

    Too bad the media won’t look at where the vaccine somes from to find that out.

  2. #2 jay
    November 6, 2009

    I think it’s more a matter of reality.

    I’ve not worked in the pharma field but I’ve learned first hand how fickle mass production can be, especially when attempting to meet a large volume of a novel item for a target date (whether that date is is a potential epidemic, or a marketing blitz).

    vaccines are even more difficult than most other pharmaceuticals which are typically simply chemistry. Safely culturing a modified life form which could be disastrous if it mutates badly is too full of variables to predict accurately (even seasonal flu often has production problems). The manufacturers were probably overly optimistic when they accepted the orders, but under the circumstances, they were told how much needed to be produced (rather than, as in many other manufacturing circumstances, produce to fit a market), they probably took the orders

    I’d much rather they come up short than to take safety damaging shortcuts.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    November 6, 2009

    Saw an ad on TV this morning saying the vaccine shortfall was the government’s fault, therefore we should not have government health care. Maybe the actual facts support the idea that we should not have non government health care.

  4. #4 Rob Jase
    November 6, 2009

    Sorry Jay but it wasn’t safety concerns that caused the industry to underproduce. Instead it was the deliberate decision to split the resources between the seasonal flu & H1N1 that would otherwise have all gone to the seasonal. The contracts called for more of both.

    That way the industry assured there would be a shortage of both vaccines but not the profits from them.