Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/412/4680
Take over the drug companies
THE SPREADING of the bird 'flu virus has shown up the complacency of governments and the big pharmaceutical firms' hard-faced profiteering.
Roche, the company that produces Tamiflu, the drug recommended to alleviate bird flu symptoms, wants to retain a tight grip on production whilst a massive increase in output is needed.
Dr Jon Dale looks at the problems in tackling the issue.
BIRDS INFECTED with H5N1 'flu virus have now reached Europe. This virus was first found in China in 2003 and then South East Asia last year. 60 people died, about half of those infected. Most had close contact with infected birds, particularly chicken and ducks.
Because the virus changes rapidly, new vaccines need to be continually developed. 750 million doses could be produced in nine months, growing a genetically-engineered 'seed' in fertile chicken eggs. But to find enough eggs, manufacturers would have to stop producing normal human 'flu vaccine, increasing the risk to the elderly and others who get vaccinated each autumn.
Last year there was a massive shortage of 'flu vaccine in the US when its main supplier, Chiron Corporation, had to close its Liverpool factory due to product safety problems.
Vaccines can be produced more quickly with human cultured cells instead of eggs. A factory in the Czech Republic - opened in 2002 by the US company, Baxter - could produce 50 million doses this way. It was co-opted to make smallpox vaccine for the US 'war on terror' bio-defence stockpile.
Taunya Sell, a financial analyst, said many companies would hesitate to invest in this field. "If the profit margins are horrible, why would any company take that chance otherwise?" (Washington Post 27.11.04) Pharmaceutical and biotech companies want to make drugs people take every day, not just once a year.
If (or when) an outbreak of bird 'flu in humans occurs, scientists predict rapid treatment in the place it starts with Tamiflu, would cut the risk of the newly infectious virus spreading. It costs $60 for a 10-pill course of treatment. There is an enormous gap between the sudden demand and the capacity of Roche, its sole manufacturer, to produce it.
Although production of Tamiflu has increased eightfold in the past two years, it will currently take $16 billion and 10 years to make enough for 20% of the world's population.
"Something has to be done,'' said Ira Longini, an Emory University professor. "When you think of the potential damage a pandemic flu could do, and how little drug we have, the situation is quite absurd." However, Roche has until recently been refusing to allow other companies to break their patent on Tamiflu and start new production.
So what's the answer? For a start, public ownership and democratic control of the pharmaceutical industry is needed to plan production to meet need. Public health measures on a world scale are needed to tackle a virus that doesn't need a passport to cross international borders.
INFLUENZA changes its form continually, so our resistance to it (from previous infections) is lost and new versions of the virus quickly sweep through the population. The low numbers infected so far show bird 'flu isn't easily caught.
The real threat comes when someone with human 'flu infection also catches H5N1 bird 'flu. The bird virus can then get the highly infectious character of the human virus and spread quickly among humans. So far there has only been one probable case of human-to-human transmission.
Vaccinating all poultry industry workers against human 'flu would cut the risk of H5N1 virus developing human infectivity. This should include those culling poultry where infected birds have been found.
Changes to intensive poultry farming, and to live bird markets in countries where refrigeration is scarce, would cut the risk of new strains of bird 'flu emerging and spreading to humans.
In The Socialist 20 October 2005: