When chickens can’t bail us out

In failing to prevent the flu vaccine shortage, officials have endangered public health.

Sometimes it is hard to tell which of two problems is causing the other. In these situations, people will employ some metaphor related to a chicken and her eggs. Regarding the dangerous shortage of flu vaccines available this flu season, this is not the case.

Instead, we know various factors caused this health snafu, and one of them is that the public still relies on chickens and their eggs to combat the flu.

The British government announced Wednesday it was halting Chiron Corporation’s flu vaccine production because of manufacturing problems. Chiron was scheduled to sell 46 million doses. Tens of millions of Americans considered vulnerable to complications will not receive vaccines this year.

Otherwise healthy people’s bodies can fight the flu. For others, such as the very young, elderly or chronically ill, catching the flu can leave lasting effects or even be fatal. The flu kills an estimated 36,000 Americans each year.

On campus, Boynton Health Service, which was dependent on Chiron, has no vaccines. Boynton had ordered 13,000 and estimates there are 2,000 high-risk patients looking to it for their vaccines. Officials at Boynton are hopeful they can acquire sufficient doses for vulnerable patients as health officials across the country redistribute the available vaccines.

The real tragedy here is, while experts agree the British government was correct to halt Chiron’s production, the chronic shortage of vaccines is unnecessary.

The public relies on two main suppliers for flu vaccines, which must incubate the strains in chicken eggs. Most experts think using human or monkey cells is preferable to using chicken eggs, but this switch has been held up by scientific problems, as well as intellectual property disputes and market forces.

Three companies hold the patents on the technology that uses cell cultures to reverse engineer the virus strains needed to create the vaccines. Negotiations over the royalties for those who seek to profit from sales failed to produce a solution.

Privatization has been heralded in many industries. This is an area where a partly private market failed. It is too early to prescribe a solution, or even a general direction, but something needs to change.

That change cannot help us this year. For now, if you fit a high-risk category, find a way to get vaccinated. If you don’t, go without this year and focus on staying healthy – eat right, get sufficient sleep, wash your hands and decrease your alcohol consumption. It’s hard to choose not to protect yourself, but this flu season, vaccines must go to those who need them most.