- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

It’s hard to think of anything more important than to get enough of the right vaccine and get it quickly enough to prevent millions of deaths in a pandemic if bird flu virus in central Asia mutates into a form contagious among humans.

Yet we’re going about it in the opposite way we should. Here we are, with the virus practically upon us, talking about appropriating money and immunizing (no pun intended) from civil liability the only private company that can produce the vaccine necessary to protect us — even then with old, small-batch technology that will not produce nearly as much vaccine as would be needed to immunize all of us.

Nor will it produce the right vaccine, quickly enough, to deal with the bird flu virus as it mutates further.

While the president’s speech last week was reasonably optimistic, at its heart was the idea Draconian measures might be needed to control movement of people and to deny access to certain areas to prevent against from a viral catastrophe. In short, the vaccine approach to the bird flu might fail.

This is the wrong answer. We should be much more “ahead of the problem,” and we need to address it — comprehensively.

Let’s fund and build a state-of-the-art government facility and keep it producing enough of the right vaccine to immunize us against the most serious flu-based viral diseases that develop.

The “model” for this is the Government Ammunition Plant, an we have held onto for 200 years to ensure our military always has enough of the proper ammunition in any conflict involving us at any time, anywhere.

And, as we debate the flu pandemic, there is a huge government factory in Lake City, Mo., turning out all the small-arms ammunition we need. The last of 12 government-owned and -run ammunition plants, now run by a contractor, the Lake City Ammunition Plant, has several associated Web sites. Look at them and think how we might use this idea to produce enough of the flu vaccines we will need each year.

Without getting into a political discussion, most Americans would probably agree that protecting our people — at home — against a catastrophic flu epidemic is a priority at least as high as ensuring U.S. troops have enough bullets.

And, there will always be the public-private debate: Even as the Army worries about “shortfalls” in small-caliber ammunition, it opposes building more government-owned plants and believes shortages can be made up through private-sector contracts.

If there were vaccine “shortfalls,” we could look to the private sector too. But should we look there for all of it? I think not.

There will always be at least one government-owned ammunition plant, albeit run by a private contractor. Congress has always seen the great wisdom of this.

And the lawmakers should likewise see the same wisdom regarding production of enough of the proper flu vaccine so every American can be immunized.

Much of the last year’s vaccine supply proved bad and we simply didn’t have enough of the good kind. The government’s sole contract with a foreign vaccine producer failed to deliver: The contractor could not provide nearly enough vaccine.

The odds of this occurring with a government-owned plant, even if operated by a contractor, are very low. And we must plan our public-heath strategies around this sort of confidence, especially when the potential disaster is so great.

This year, we simply can’t afford to make a mistake. Yet we again have limited our options: We must depend on the private sector, pay what they ask, and suffer the results of their failure if they don’t deliver — and, like last year, they may not.

In short, we need much better odds against the Asian bird flu pandemic than we have given ourselves.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Va. He has served in a number of senior national security policy positions.

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