- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

The president’s NationalPandemic Strategy provides America with a blueprint for revitalizing and expanding the nation’s capacity to prevent pandemics for the next decade. At the heart of the proposal is understanding the growing demand for influenza vaccines in particular to cover nearly 75 percent of Americans. Stabilizing demand at that level through market pricing and protection from Vioxx-type lawsuits will stimulate the investmentinvaccine technologies that will allow immediate development of vaccines once a lethal flu strain is isolated. There will be massive production of shots within months or weeks.

There are those who will likely object to a policy that promotes the pharmaceutical industry by limiting legal liability and promoting consumer demand and market pricing. Indeed, as the current orgy of proposals seeking to restrict payment for new drugs in Congress indicates, it could very well be that the national strategy will never be implemented. Those who place their disdain for biotech and drug companies ahead of the public health should learn the lesson of a flu outbreak of lesser lethality to avoid a plague of epic proportions.

In 1999, Britain’s medical-technology-review agency, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), ruled that a new anti-flu drug was unnecessary and recommended that the National Health Service (NHS) not pay for it. At the same time in our country, the trial attorney-funded group Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader) sounded the alarm, picked up by the media, that the drug was worthless at best and deadly in many cases. Worldwide demand plummeted.

In January 2000 a flu outbreak spread so rapidly throughout Britain and Scotland that hospitals were overflowing with sick people and corpses had to be stored in refrigerated trucks. Though NICE revised its recommendations for the drug, the original decision had taken its toll: Demand in many countries, including ours, plummeted, and plans to expand production were scaled back.

The drug? Relenza, which along with Tamiflu will be critical to reducing the death rate of people who get infected with avian flu. Of course, production of Tamiflu and Relenza is well below what it must be to cover the globe. Having a real market for the products a decade ago would have put us in a better position not only to produce sufficient quantities of these drugs and vaccines but to encourage investment in other anti-flu remedies.

Apparently the avian flu-fighting properties of these medicines still haven’t swayed Public Citizen from a continuing campaign of fear to dissuade people from taking the medicine. Indeed, even after hundreds of people who could have been helped by Relenza died and NICE redid its guidelines to expand use to those most likely to die of the flu, Sidney Wolfe, Public Citizen’s fearmonger-in- chief, moaned in a letter to NICE: “The group that you have correctly defined as being at special risk from the complications of influenza also appear to be those at special risk of the adverse effects of zanamivir (Relenza).”

The group still claims that Relenza and Tamiflu are some of the worst pills in the world. Not surprisingly, trial attorneys use the Public Citizen reports as the foundation for their lawsuits against drug companies.

We need to rebuild the market for vaccines and anti-flu drugs. Without it, disease surveillance and quarantine efforts will be of limited value. Hospitals will not be able to handle all the sick and dying. But which lesson will Congress learn? Its current deliberations should create concern. It is considering price controls and rationing of new drugs in Medicare and Medicaid that are so extreme as to make Britain’s influenza faux pas seem like an act of medicinal generosity. At the same time Congress has protected gunmakers and cheeseburgers from lawsuits, it has refused to extend the same protection to the developers of lifesaving medicines.

Will Congress realize, as did Louis Pasteur, that chance favors the prepared mind? Or will it cave in to the special interests and professional purveyors of trial lawyer-funded fear like Public Citizen? Our ability to prevent pandemics and protect the health of humanity hang in the balance.

Robert Goldberg is director of the Manhattan Institute’s CenterforMedical Progress.

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