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Vying for vaccine

What with tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides and bombings, we’ve been beaten around the head with more than a few hard lessons on the limits to human power in the past year. And it looks like we are about to get another one—bird flu. Oddly enough, the lesson may well have more to do with politics and bureaucracy than with medicine.

Make no mistake, bird flu is already a nasty proposition. About three-quarters of those who contract it die. Luckily, at present, the only sure way for humans to become infected is through close physical contact with infected birds. But if the bird flu virus should mutate into a form that is transmissible from human to human, we are likely to be in real strife.

So it should come as some relief to know that a seemingly effective vaccine against bird flu is already being tested. In the near future, perhaps we will all be able to sit back and relax and let nature do its worst.

Well, not quite. You see, we don’t have enough manufacturing capacity to make sufficient vaccine quickly enough to protect us if the flu starts to spread among humans. Why? Vaccines are now not all that profitable for drug companies—certainly not as profitable as lifestyle drugs like Viagra or Celebrex.

The industry blames a combination of government over-regulation and control over prices. And there’s another downside. If you produce a bad batch, the compensation consequences are potentially horrendous. Whatever the case, the big American pharmaceutical companies have bailed out.

That leaves the manufacture of about 70 per cent of the world’s vaccines in the hands of five countries in Western Europe. This could become much more than an idle fact if a bird flu pandemic started and the manufacturing countries insisted that their citizens be injected first. Luckily for us, Australia has a sizable manufacturer in CSL.

So perhaps making vaccines is one of those things that governments should have kept a closer eye on. But it’s only one example of the ‘public good’ activities that seem to be going the same way. Why, for example, do we still not have effective drugs to treat and protect us against increasingly resistant malaria, a disease that affects up to 500 million people and kills more than two million people a year, as it ravages the tropics?

The problem is just that. It ravages the tropics, not people in the developed world who can afford to pay a premium for new drugs and boost company profits. The same argument is valid for many other tropical diseases and parasites.

Unfortunately, as global warming swings into gear and the mosquitoes bearing malaria parasites extend their ranges north and south, such commercial decisions may well come back to bite us. Literally.

But bad decision-making with respect to health is not confined to the developed world. You only have to remember how Chinese authorities initially tried to cover up news of the SARS outbreak in 2003 because they were concerned about its potential to hurt tourism and business. Their efforts slowed the fight against SARS by four months, giving the disease time to spread.

We clearly have the capacity to organise ourselves more efficiently in the face of emerging global medical threats, but we will never do so while political and commercial interests take precedence over public health.

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.