President Bush annnounces avian flu plan

Details here.

The key element in the proposal, in my mind, is the emphasis on developing a vaccine through the use of cell-based cultures rather than in millions of chicken eggs, which has been the standard since the 1950s. The egg process takes nearly a year, as I understand it, while the cell culture method is much faster and allows researchers to move more quickly through various experiments and trials, both for the H5N1 avian virus or for any other strain that may develop.

While it may appear odd that we’ve not made many technological advances in this area over the past few decades – as opposed to, say, digital music media — the fact is there hasn’t been an economic incentive or suitable risk/reward profile — for companies to invest time and money in this area.

“We’re not as well-prepared today as we want to be,” Leavitt said. “We’re better prepared than we were yesterday, and we’ll continue to get better prepared every day as time goes forward.”

…Part of the president’s plan, he said, will deal with what he called “junk lawsuits” that stifle the output of vaccine manufacturers.

“The manufacturers simply refuse to make it if they haven’t got some protection, so that’s part of the president’s plan to provide that type of liability protection,” Leavitt said.

The people I talk to who are closer to the situation say recent developments and the increased awareness world-wide are encouraging and if the H5N1 virus doesn’t mutate to a form easily transferred human-to-human in the next year we will be in a good position to significantly mitigate the threat. If it develops sooner than that then we could be in for a rough time globally. The latest projections from Health and Human Services now predict – in a worst case scenario – up to 1.9 million deaths in the U.S. alone.

Historically, there is a high statistical probability that the world is due for an influenza pandemic of some kind. Whether it turns out to be the bird flu or some other strain, the work that’s being done in revamping research and development capabilities now will pay off.

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