Influenza vaccines are the best weapons we’ve got against a disease that each year kills as many as a half-million people, including 3,000 to 49,000 Americans. Yet this season’s worse-than-usual flu in the U.S. underscores the limitations of the existing vaccines.
Shortcomings include the inability to rapidly expand vaccine supply in the event of an especially bad flu and the need to vaccinate people with a new formulation almost every year as the virus mutates. These are problems enough when coping with regular seasonal flu. They spell potential disaster in the case of pandemic flu, which occurs sporadically (most recently in 2009) when an animal strain of the virus jumps to humans.
Better vaccines are on the drawing board. Developing them will require a joint effort by government and the pharmaceutical industry.
The greatest breakthrough would be a universal flu vaccine that would protect against all viral strains, eliminating the need for annual and pandemic inoculations. Researchers are experimenting with parts of the virus that don’t mutate in the hope of creating vaccines offering lifelong, or at least years-long, protection.
The U.S. government pays for much of the research. Its scientists are working on a universal vaccine, and it is partially funding a Phase 2 trial of an experimental vaccine grown using E. coli instead of chicken eggs.
Yet the government has limited means and little product-development experience. Making a new vaccine typically takes a decade and can cost $1 billion. A project of that size is better suited to large pharmaceutical companies. Most, however, have been loath to seriously invest in new vaccines, which offer low returns.
Given this market reality, the U.S. government should design incentives to get the industry more deeply involved, and it should encourage other countries with manufacturing capability to follow suit. The National Vaccine Advisory Committee should begin by asking industry leaders what it would take. Among the possibilities they should consider: tax credits for research and development costs, fast-track procedures for product approval, extensions for patents and periods of market exclusivity, and financial prizes for scientific breakthroughs.
By engaging Big Pharma in creating future flu vaccines, governments can ensure that a market failure doesn’t lead to a public health catastrophe.