A major drug company reported today that a new vaccine against the H5N1 type of avian flu is showing a lot of promise. According to manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, the vaccine created a protective response in 80 percent of people it was tested on, which is an impressive result. News reports say the vaccine could be for sale in the United States as soon as the end of the year.
The reported success of the vaccine seems like good news. However, the vaccine is most effective against the H5N1 strain used to make the vaccine. Flu strains mutate as they pass from bird-to-bird or bird-to-human. If the strain mutates to one that easily passes from human-to-human, this vaccine may not be as effective. And even if we end up with a vaccine for this strain, a completely independent strain could crop up. So it's important that we not declare this the "be-all, end-all" cure for pandemic flu.
If this new vaccine works as well as the drug company says, there may be calls to start vaccinating people, especially if the bird threat increases. (Whether or not we're going to need mass vaccinations against H5N1 is another story.) If we decide to start vaccinations here in the United States, there a few things that would need to be done first: The Food and Drug Administration would need to confirm that the vaccine works and is safe. And health insurers will need to agree to cover the cost of the vaccination, which sometimes will not happen unless the government recommends the vaccine in its immunization guidelines.
Once an avian flu vaccine becomes available, the U.S. government plans to stockpile it, to the tune of 20 million courses, to protect health care workers, emergency personnel, government officials and other "first responders." That means that our parents, children, friends and families may not be the first ones to receive the vaccine. (Unless of course, they are health care workers, first responders, etc.)
We also need to remember that it's not just the United States that needs the vaccine, and that it's not just for the rich. Most of the human cases of H5N1 avian flu we've seen so far have been in countries where individuals may not be able to afford the cost of the vaccine, and where there may not be strong health systems in place.
If this vaccine holds true on its promise, we need to make sure that those who most need it are the ones who are able to get it, both here in the United States and around the world.