Some people (including, but not limited to, Stephen Gordon and Andrew Sullivan) have suggested that the U.S. government abrogate the patent on the antiviral drug Tamiflu to produce enough doses to be ready in case there is an outbreak of avian flu.
This is a very bad idea — not because of the practical limits of Tamflu, but mainly because (a) the U.S. government does not exactly have a drug facgtor lying around ready to make the stuff, and (b) this would basically guarantee that no company would bother inventing drugs for any infectious disease again. After all, why bother making something if the government is just going to come and take it whenever enough people need it to make it profitable?
This doesn’t mean there aren’t things the government can do. I don’t have time for a full-length post on this right now, but Tyler Cowen has a number of suggestions for things to do, all of which are good if it’s physically possible for Roche to produce a huge amount of Tamiflu in a short period of time. (Note for the record: Most of the comments on that post are seriously wrong-headed.)
Looking long-term, one of the problems with this is that flu vaccines take about 4 months to produce (they are grown in eggs), in a process that’s been around for a long time, probably since before the FDA started regulating vaccine production methods. I’ve read that there’s a faster method, but the FDA is taking forever to act on the application for approval (I’ll try to find a link later this week).
There is also the vaccine liability issue — basically, if you make a vaccine and the all 300 million people in the U.S. are vaccinated, and any of them get sick with anything in the near future, it’s your fault. (This is why the flu vaccine has a warning about Guillain-Barre Syndrome — in 1976 there was a massive vaccination against a flu epidemic and a few people got Guillain-Barre Syndrome afterwards. It was the about the same number of people that get it every year, but this time there was a flu vaccine, so they all sued.)
I’ll try to post more on this later, but now I’m going offline for a couple of days for the star of Sukkot — and I have huge stack of work waiting for me when I get back. See you Thursday!
(Thanks toThe Glittering Eye for the pointer!)