Flu crisis prompts broad redesign in vaccines

With the worst flu outbreak since 2009 gripping the U.S., vaccine makers are determined to do better next season. They’re developing powerful vaccines that hold the promise of cutting incidences of flu by the thousands.

The new immunizations represent the broadest flu treatment update in three decades, while more than 200,000 American are hospitalized yearly with the disease, according to U.S. health officials. Health officials were caught off-guard last month when the flu season started earlier than in past years, with 48 states now reporting widespread disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today.

Existing vaccines miss significant quantities of the virus circulating in any given year. This year, for instance, as many as 4 million people may develop influenza from a strain of virus that isn’t included in the current vaccine. Now, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are each preparing immunizations that for the first time will cover all four main forms of the virus, including both influenza B strains that often infect children…

Because flu is so unpredictable, with different strains becoming dominant year to year, producing a four-in-one vaccine can be a big step forward toward keeping breakouts under control, said John Treanor, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Still, making changes to vaccines is a lengthy and expensive process. The cost to develop a novel vaccine that goes even further and provides long-lasting umbrella protection in the face of constantly mutating viruses may be at least $1 billion, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. That can be a tough sell for a product that brings in little profit for the companies that make them.

Drug makers say the severity of this year’s flu outbreak validates their decision to move forward.

“It’s not by any means a high-margin area, but it is a linchpin, a foundation for what you do as a vaccine company,” said Len Friedland, head of clinical and medical affairs at London-based Glaxo’s vaccine division. “It really is critical to our company in terms of what we can do for public health and responsibility that we have to society.”

Still, the rate of immunization as of last season was less than 40 percent of U.S. adults.

“Prior to this year, we had two mild seasons,” said David Greenberg, senior director of scientific and medical affairs for Sanofi Pasteur. “My impression is that with a couple of mild seasons, people think it’s not so critical to go out and get an immunization. This is a potentially deadly disease. It varies, but tens of thousands of people die each year from influenza. How do you make that relevant?

Americans in general haven’t anymore understanding of science and the products of science than their elected representatives. Sounds like there’s some correlation, eh? Ignorant people electing incompetent politicians.

It’s only been a century or so since vaccines have become the success they are at preventing deadly disease. Yet, religious pundits in the United States are no less criminal than the Taliban at opposing widespread use for the flimsiest of excuses. Their decisions are no less criminal.

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