The U.S. is now in the grip of a nationwide influenza surge that threatens the lives of thousands of people. City and state governments are declaring health emergencies and television personalities are getting vaccinated on live TV. Still, people so greatly misperceive the severity of flu that it became the punch line for a joke during Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards show.
But flu is not a laughing matter. More than 3,700 people have been hospitalized and at least 20 children have already died from flu-related causes since Oct. 1, 2012, when the flu season officially began.
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Thousands of people die in the U.S. of seasonal flu each year. Many more are hospitalized and require long recuperation times before they can return to fully active lives. Most of the tragic victims of flu are among the very old, young and sick. The cost of caring for them is staggering.
Influenza prevention and treatment is an area where there is an urgent need to spend money in order to save money and lives. As many as 49,000 people have died of seasonal flu-related causes in one year in the U.S., and many more elsewhere.
Novel influenza strains that pop up unexpectedly can cause many more fatalities. In 2003, an extremely deadly strain of H5N1 avian influenza began infecting people in Asia. The number of cases increased in 2004 and 2005, causing great concern among U.S. government agencies that the disease could spread to the U.S.
In response to the avian flu threat, Congress created the Biodefense Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in 2006 as part of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act. Among BARDA's responsibilities is stockpiling vaccines and antiviral medicines in the case of a severe flu attack, advancing innovation to protect the U.S. against the flu, and insuring that the U.S. has a manufacturing infrastructure to make the country self-sufficient in combating a flu epidemic.
In 2006, BARDA began to make long-term investments in biodefense- and pandemic-related vaccine production facilities and drugs. Those investments are now starting to bear fruit. Just three months ago, Novartis licensed a new vaccine manufacturing plant process in North Carolina that was begun in 2006 with $500 million in cooperative funding with BARDA.
This new plant process will increase the production speed of seasonal flu vaccines and enable faster response to flu emergencies. It uses the latest vaccine technology, which cultivates the virus used for flu vaccine in 1,250 gallon vats rather than thousands of fertilized eggs in an outdated manufacturing process. In the event of a worldwide pandemic, our nation is guaranteed to have production capacity on our own shores through investments like this one with Novartis.
Vaccine manufacturing went out of vogue decades ago as a high-risk, low-reward endeavor. Without government involvement, large pharmaceutical companies like Novartis wouldn't be able to justify to their stockholders the commitment of capital to build a new vaccine facility in the U.S., especially when other companies are moving vaccine production offshore to countries like China, where they can save several dollars per vaccine and compete in the Chinese marketplace.