Which is Worse—Bird Flu or the Government's Reaction to Bird Flu?

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Lest we forget, the H5N1 bird flu virus is still lurking out in the world. One day it may hit the right combination of genetic changes to transform itself into a pandemic disease in humans. Humans may be especially vulnerable because we have never developed immunity to the hemagglutinin 5 gene (H5). So what to do?

bird flu tank

Making a new vaccine targeted at controlling the H5N1 virus would be really helpful. One problem–who's going to put up the money to do it in advance? Such a vaccine is commercially viable only when the disease has already broken out and, unlike seasonal flu vaccines, there are no recurring revenues.

One could imagine a company deciding to take the risk of producing a stockpile of the vaccine in advance and waiting to sell it at a tidy markup if there's an outbreak. However, given the likelihood of a panicky government response, e.g., seizing the vaccine or imposing price controls, most companies would conclude that a stockpile strategy is too risky.

Perhaps the biotech company Novavax has hit upon a good strategy-devise a new way to make vaccines quickly in the event of outbreak. Right now seasonal flu vaccines are produced using a decades-old technology of growing them up in chicken eggs, a process that takes months. As the Washington Post reports:

Novavax said yesterday that its bird flu vaccine elicited a robust immune response in humans, moving the biotech a step closer to licensing its pandemic vaccine production system.

In the trial, 160 patients received two vaccine injections, of 15 to 90 micrograms, one month apart. Of the patients who received the highest dosage, 94 percent produced antibodies to neutralize H5N1, an Indonesian strain of bird flu that emerged in 2005 and has been linked to 110 deaths….

Novavax has partnered with GE Healthcare to reach the rest of the world by providing other countries a system to quickly mass-produce vaccines.

"If you truly believe a pandemic outbreak is likely, there is reason to believe foreign governments and the U.S. will clamp down and control the supply," [said Ken Trbovich, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets.] He added, "Other places in the world may have a lot of money, but no amount of money will get you vaccines in the case of a pandemic."

How to get around this government-risk?

Novavax has partnered with GE Healthcare to reach the rest of the world by providing other countries a system to quickly mass-produce vaccines….

GE is developing the production equipment, which is cheap to set up and run in case of a pandemic…

"We see no reason to invest additional money of our own into the pandemic vaccine when we can wait for a foreign government that needs this vaccine to put money in," Singhvi said.

If there is an outbreak, then desperate governments will buy and set up Novavax' and GE Healthcare's new speedy vaccine production system.

Whole Post article here

Why I think there may never be another pandemic again here.

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  1. However, given the likelihood of a panicky government response, e.g., seizing the vaccine or imposing price controls, most companies would conclude that a stockpile strategy is too risky.

    Actually, this insight explains well why the presence of “windfall profit taxes” and laws against “disaster profiteering” harm the public and the economy.

    We have assiduously created a situation where it’s not really feasible to have a business plan where you produce or maintain a supply of some resource that is currently cheap, in order to realize your profit when the price spikes, whether from increased demand or some system shock.

    Of course, having discouraged planning for the future, the haters of capitalism are then annoyed when capitalists focus on the short term instead. And having discouraged stockpiling for emergencies, they’re annoyed when goods and services aren’t available during emergencies. But that’s pretty much the same old same old.

  2. Clearly this is a win for supporters of the government’s reaction. Without them, we clearly wouldn’t have the development of faster ways to farm vaccines.

  3. Threadjack – what’s with no new Daily Brickbats? Those Brickbats are great entertainment, I look for them every day

  4. There’s only one way to stop a pandemic: To quote the great Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak

    WE HAVE TO GET THAT MONKEY!

  5. Threadjack – what’s with no new Daily Brickbats? Those Brickbats are great entertainment, I look for them every day

    I think the staff is busy covering that which everyone (including them) has repeatedly belabored is “not news”.

    Conventions are like giant, puffed-up brickbats, wrapped in a bow.

  6. The best way to stop a pandemic is kill everyone. If everyone is dead then they can’t get sick.

  7. Well said, fluffy.

  8. JW,

    I see your “WE HAVE TO GET THAT MONKEY!” and raise you:

    Phone Guy: This could mean my stripes, sir.
    Col. Sam Daniels: It’ll mean your ass if you don’t get your finger on the phone. Finger it!

  9. “No, no. No, see this is a really shit idea. You know why? Because it’s really obviously a shit idea.”

  10. This article finally gives me a chance to quote “Cyborg”! Sweet!

    Fender Tremolo: First there was the collapse of civilization: anarchy, genocide, starvation. Then when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, we got the plague. The Living Death, quickly closing its fist over the entire planet. Then we heard the rumors: that the last scientists were working on a cure that would end the plague and restore the world. Restore it? Why? I like the death! I like the misery! I LIKE THIS WORLD!

  11. I got a better one Epi, and surprisingly relevant to this article.

    Colonel Sam Daniels: We are fugitives of the law. Idiocy is our only option.

  12. The easiest way to beat bird flu is to convince Chinese people to stop fucking birds.

    Or at least use a condom if they can’t help themselves.

  13. “We see no reason to invest additional money of our own into the pandemic vaccine when we can wait for a foreign government that needs this vaccine to put money in,” Singhvi said.

    Look at this evil corporation, being all corporation-y! Just saying flat out that their plan is to squeeze money out of desperate governments whose people are dying in a plague!

    We need to pass a law requiring these greedy, amoral pharmaceutical companies to stockpile vaccines for every potential pandemic disease, known or unknown, on their own dime, instead of allowing them to get fat off the suffering of sick people.

  14. “No, no. No, see this is a really shit idea. You know why? Because it’s really obviously a shit idea.”

    I now have my new email sig.

  15. Reinmoose,
    I would argue that a self-interested government would have no other choice but to limit the export of vaccine in a true pandemic. In the case of a 1918-like deathathon, standing by their principles of private property would be a quick way to get overthrown (and shortly thereafter, the vaccines get seized anyway.) Of course, most governments would start restricting exports at death 1 because they’re power-hungry hyper-douches. But that doesn’t mean that once the pandemic really sets in that they’re not being rational.

    The correct method of avoiding such a lose-lose situation is to have a stockpile contract in place, pre-pandemic, to allow the production of vaccine in advance. Then the companies are bound by law to surrender (sell at a prearranged profit) their goods to the country in an emergency.

  16. A vaccine for the pandemic strain can’t be produced until a pandemic strain emerges – until a pandemic begins.

    They can make vaccine now based on the strains of H5N1 in 2004 or 2007, but that does not mean that the vaccine will work for the mutated virus that causes a pandemic.

    If we are still relying on chicken egg technology, it will take 6 to 9 months after a pandemic begins to have the first batches of vaccine.

  17. They can make vaccine now based on the strains of H5N1 in 2004 or 2007, but that does not mean that the vaccine will work for the mutated virus that causes a pandemic.

    Mostly agreed. But remember that any tangentially-related vaccine will produce an immune response. Will the incorrect strain produce as strong of a (protective against pandemic strain) response as the pandemic strain? No. But it is still better than nothing while the pandemic strain is being worked up. Especially with recent improvements in adjuvent technology.

  18. lousy tags

  19. Why I think there may never be another pandemic again

    You mean after we get done with the one we are currently in the midst of?

  20. If there is an outbreak, then desperate governments will buy and set up Novavax’ and GE Healthcare’s new speedy vaccine production system.

    Genius. Nothing to seize. If the government won’t pay cash, they get nothing. Once they pony up, they get the equipment and know-how to use it.

    Still, I’d build in a function that turns it off unless a code is entered periodically from Novavax HQ. You can’t be too careful when you’re dealing with the State.

  21. I doubt there’s gonna be a pandemic.

    Won’t the free market produce a vaccine magically?

    LOL

  22. Avian Bird flu? Hell, I’m still locked in my bomb shelter waiting for the West Nile Virus* epidemic to end. Don’t you understand? It’s spread by mosquitos! We can’t defend ourselves againt disease carrying skeeters!

    * Go ahead, click on it. I have some solid irrefutable anecdotal evidence that West Nile will kill us all.

  23. What ever happened to swine flu?

  24. Usually I think that Mr. Anti-Globalism is a goofy pink poof, but I find myself agreeing with him on the narrow point (minus the LOL) that it is kinda silly to believe that because we have harnessed the power of free markets, there will therefore never be a pandemic ever again.

  25. Anti-Globalism,

    May you die of something completely cureable in the parking lot of a closed Walgreens.

  26. Elemenope,

    The problem is, not having another pandemic =/= producing the vaccine by magic. If there are no more pandemics, then why would a free market produce a vaccine for them? You were right on the goofy pink poof track.

    Of course there will be more pandemics. Two-thirds of the world lives in squalor, but still gets visited by travelers. Poverty tourism guarantees this will happen.

  27. The best way to stop a pandemic is kill everyone. If everyone is dead then they can’t get sick.

    Apparently I’m not the only guy here who reads 8-bit Theater.

  28. Actually the best “make money off the pandemic fear” I’ve seen yet is the program Roche (Tamiflu) is running: businesses can register and pay an annual fee to be at the head of the line to buy Tamiflu during a pandemic. Note – they aren’t paying for a stockpile (buying the drug) they are paying to be on a list to buy the drug.

  29. George Romero knows what to do in a pandemic: shoot for the head.

  30. Mostly agreed. But remember that any tangentially-related vaccine will produce an immune response. Will the incorrect strain produce as strong of a (protective against pandemic strain) response as the pandemic strain? No. But it is still better than nothing while the pandemic strain is being worked up. Especially with recent improvements in adjuvent technology.

    Hmmm?

    We have seasonal flu vaccine that is ineffective when strains of flu drift away from the vax.

    Do you believe that during these years we are still seeing some benefit from seasonal flu vax?

    I’d like to be convinced that the panflu vax that is being produced now will be of some benefit during a pandemic because I’m not as optimistic as other posters about the chances of avoiding of a pandemic. Indonesia is hot.

  31. Being that: Most human cases of H5N1 virus infection are thought to have occurred as a result of direct contact with sick or dead infected poultry (from the CDC(and P!) website), I’m not too entirely concerned about contracting it. However, I completely understand SugarFree’s comment about squalor/tourism.

    I am honestly more concerned about West Nile (anything greater than zero is “more”). Further, I truly wonder why I can Advantix my Labrador which repels fleas, ticks and mosquitos for a month, while I must bathe in DEET everytime I go outside with her. No Human Advantix in the pipeline? Come on scientists, go do some science!

    “…put another round in her! She’s a twitcher!”

  32. I never like to pass up a perfect opportunity to post a ridiculous death metal song, so everyone please enjoy Kalmah

    The groan of wind
    A silent killing machine
    There?s no place we can breathe
    Deep down in our lungs symptom breeds

    H5N1 Lethal time bomb
    H5N1 Lethal time bomb

  33. Speaking of H5N1 and surrounding hysteria, I found the ads for this SciFi Original Movie hysterical.

    The Most Laughable Night on Television.?

  34. Dammit, I thought for sure I’d post the most ridiculous thing in this thread. Mutant killer birds carrying a deadly virus attack a group of hikers on a wilderness trek? Fuck, man. Just…fuck.

  35. Being that: Most human cases of H5N1 virus infection are thought to have occurred as a result of direct contact with sick or dead infected poultry (from the CDC(and P!) website), I’m not too entirely concerned about contracting it. However, I completely understand SugarFree’s comment about squalor/tourism.

    If the only way to become infected was by contact with infected birds, I don’t think many people would be worried.

    The concern is human to human transmission. It is happening on a limited basis now, and the concern is that the virus will continue mutating and that human to human transmission will become sustained so that the virus is transmitted like seasonal flu. That would cause a pandemic.

    The 1918 pandemic killed approx 50 million people, and the fatality rate of this virus is much higher.

  36. The squalor point is interesting, since that’s pretty much what started the 1918 pandemic. World leaders: please delay any plans for a trench war in southeast Asia. Thank you.

  37. What ever happened to swine flu?

    Mom was a virologist, so she gave me the vaccine for swine flu way back, and my arm hurt like hell for at least a week. I could barely use it. (For normal things, not what you’re thinking.)

  38. Speaking of H5N1 and surrounding hysteria, I found the ads for this SciFi Original Movie hysterical.

    The Most Laughable Night on Television.?

    ***

    The movie was worse than the ads. It seems to have been misclassified as horror – should have been comedy.

  39. Warty. Your post may have been marginally less ridiculous, but it was totally metal.

  40. Maybe Congress should enact a tariff against Chinese bird shit to encourage an increase in H5N1-free American bird shit.

  41. “””Poverty tourism guarantees this will happen.”””

    What do you mean by poverty tourism. Poor people coming here? or Americans touring the Ghettos of the world?

  42. Bird flu is a serious illness that affects birds. Especially chickens, that can be spread from birds to humans and that can cause death. Recently the breaking out of bird flu has taken us aback. We could never think of such kind of problem in our country. However thanks to the Almighty that it could not break out in an epidemic form because of the timely intervention of the government and people’s consciousness about the matter. The cause of bird flu in our country could not be detected. It was thought that it might have been carried and spread by the imported chickens from our neighboring countries like Thailand and China. Because the breaking out of bird flu in an epidemic form has been seen in China and Thailand. Poultry farming has had a positive effect on the social economic condition in our country. It helped many rural poor women to break the chain of poverty and see better days to their lives. But the recent breaking out of bird flu has shadowed their smiling faces into gloomy ones and clouded their foreheads. It has emptied their fertile farms and turned the firms into barren hands. We have seen the hearts. However, it is heartening that our government has taken an all out efforts to give loans to the people engaged in poultry farming on easy terms to keep their income generating industry on and to bring about better days and see the gloomy faces glowing with beatific smile and keep their heads above all consuming poverty.

  43. Bird flu is a serious illness that affects birds. Especially chickens, that can be spread from birds to humans and that can cause death. Recently the breaking out of bird flu has taken us aback. We could never think of such kind of problem in our country. However thanks to the Almighty that it could not break out in an epidemic form because of the timely intervention of the government and people’s consciousness about the matter. The cause of bird flu in our country could not be detected. It was thought that it might have been carried and spread by the imported chickens from our neighboring countries like Thailand and China. Because the breaking out of bird flu in an epidemic form has been seen in China and Thailand. Poultry farming has had a positive effect on the social economic condition in our country. It helped many rural poor women to break the chain of poverty and see better days to their lives. But the recent breaking out of bird flu has shadowed their smiling faces into gloomy ones and clouded their foreheads. It has emptied their fertile farms and turned the firms into barren hands. We have seen the hearts. However, it is heartening that our government has taken an all out efforts to give loans to the people engaged in poultry farming on easy terms to keep their income generating industry on and to bring about better days and see the gloomy faces glowing with beatific smile and keep their heads above all consuming poverty.

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