Tuesday, September 07, 2010

New vaccines, via competition or more regulations?

A World Health Organization (WHO) official said in an influenza conference in Hong Kong, as reported in yahoo news, that WHO wants faster, more flu vaccine production.

The world ducked the most recent outbreak, swine flu or H1N1 virus, that last year was feared by WHO and officials of many government health agencies, to possibly cause "millions" in death. The virus killed an estimated 18,600 people worldwide, still a big number.

The WHO wants anti-outbreak vaccines to be developed quick to save more lives. It is a noble goal and many people, me included, would support it. The world has seen "bird flu", SARS ("civet flu"?), swine flu, other variants of ordinary flu. I think it will not be far out for the world to see new viruses someday that can be called "horse flu", "sheep flu", "cat flu", "dog flu", "elephant flu", "tilapia flu", and so on.

I also think that some big pharmaceutical companies are already doing serious research on projecting evolving and mutating diseases from current ones where effective treatments are already available. So that when new flu, virus and diseases will show up someday on a global outbreak trend, those companies will need only short notice of several weeks to come up with an effective vaccine to kill such new diseases.

Competition among innovator pharma companies should expand the range of choices by the people and public health agencies by various governments. Those companies are driven by profit and by fear of being bankrupt. Since medicine innovation is a high risk, high returns or high losses activity, the probability of going red someday is always a possibility. Generics manufacturers do not face this kind of high risk, high returns situation. They do not have to reinvent the wheel as the most successful molecules to treat particular diseases have already been discovered by the innovator companies.

But does the WHO favor more competition and innovation always? I remember that sometime in 2008, the WHO was busy discussing how to kill, or shorten, or confiscate patents of certain newly-discovered medicines and molecules, through its lesser-known body, the Inter-Governmental Working Group (IGWG) on Innovation, Intellectual Property and Public Health.

The WHO as a leading international body and bureaucracy on public health cannot hope to see more powerful vaccines someday if its other agenda is to restrict and penalize those who invent new drugs and new vaccines. The organization seems to be promoting more health populism and socialism rather than more competition and more realistic defeat of existing and emerging diseases.

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