Oct 11, 2004
British government regulators shut down the Liverpool plant of the Chiron Corporation, which produced flu vaccines. That plant was supposed to deliver nearly 50 million batches of vaccine to the United States – half the flu shots health officials had expected to be available in the U.S. during the coming flu season.
The contamination at Chiron's plant has been called an "accident." Perhaps. But such "accidents" happen for a reason: because corporations try to maximize their profits by cutting costs – and thus risk the safety and quality of the product.
What turned one such "accident" into a full-fledged crisis, however, is the fact that very few companies produce the flu vaccine. This year, only two companies were scheduled to provide practically all the flu shots for the U.S. population – and now it's down to one.
Big drug companies don't want to produce the flu vaccine because it's not as profitable as other drugs whose patents they hold. One big company, Wyeth, for example, stopped making flu shots last year and started marketing FluMist, a newly-patented, inhaled flu vaccine, instead – which carried a very inflated price.
But that's still not the whole story. The profit-driven nature of the drug industry not only causes a shortage of the flu vaccine, it also hampers the development of more efficient vaccines.
Since new strains of the flu virus spread every year, there needs to be constant, up-to-date research to develop new vaccines. For decades, however, this kind of research has been neglected because the companies have no "incentive" to do it.
The flu has been around for a long time, and we have a relatively good understanding of its causes and prevention. Yet, every year, nearly one out of five Americans gets the flu. On average, 36,000 of them die and 200,000 are hospitalized.
Those casualty figures are a stark indictment of the conscious choices made by big pharmaceutical companies. The health and well-being of the whole society is too important to be left in the hands of a few corporations whose only motive is to maximize their profits.