- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

In a long-awaited speech at the National Institutes of Health Tuesday, President Bush outlined the administration’s approach to avian and pandemic flu preparedness — a $7.2 billion plan for vaccine subsidies, stockpile enhancements, new antiviral treatments and money for state and local efforts. “We must have enough vaccine for every American,” Mr. Bush said, noting that “our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland.” Time will tell whether action can be taken to head off catastrophe. But the president is to be commended for the proposals, which would close a few gaping holes in our readiness for avian flu and other pandemics.

The largest proposal devotes $2.8 billion to subsidize the development of underlying technologies for new influenza vaccines, presumably to go mostly to NIH, the country’s leading basic-research outfit, toward the end of “bringing cell-culture technology from the research laboratory into the production line.” With a proven record of basic-research advances the private sector could not or would not do itself, more money for NIH vaccine-technology research will be invaluable.

The second-largest pool of funds would devote as much as $1.5 billion to build a 20-million-dose stockpile of an experimental avian-flu vaccine now in trials. Another $1 billion and $800 million would be spent on antiviral drugs and treatments, respectively, both to mitigate the effects of influenza, and $644 million would be set aside for local preparedness plans. All are to the good.

In the long run, one of the most potentially significant items in the speech is one that wouldn’t cost the government anything: a law to reduce the liability of vaccine manufacturers for damages and injuries sustained by users of their products. “I’m also asking Congress to remove one of the greatest obstacles to vaccine production: the growing burden of litigation,” the president said. “Congress must pass liability protection for the makers of life-saving vaccines.”

Congress should be mindful here, because the president has a point. There is only one U.S. manufacturer today capable of producing influenza vaccine. Its manufacturing process takes months and could be overwhelmed tomorrow if a mild influenza upswing — to say nothing of a pandemic — were to occur. “The number of vaccine manufacturers in America has plummeted as the industry has been flooded with lawsuits,” Mr. Bush rightly noted. Liability reductions are necessary if a domestic manufacturing capacity is to be regained.

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