The St. Jude investigators warn that although there is excellent influenza vaccine technology available to respond rapidly to an outbreak, the legislative and infrastructure changes needed to translate these advances into public health benefits are extremely slow in coming. Intellectual property laws that limit or slow the incorporation of certain new knowledge into vaccine production add to this problem.
"If an influenza pandemic started tomorrow, we would not be able to head it off with vaccines because the production facilities available to produce them are grossly inadequate," said Robert G. Webster, Ph.D., a member of the Infectious Diseases department and holder of the Rose Marie Thomas Chair at St. Jude. Webster is co-author of the Science article.
In addition to the limited ability to respond to an outbreak with vaccines, the supply of antiviral drugs that might slow a pandemic is in "scandalously short supply," according to the article.
"In the face of a pandemic, the available supplies of antiviral drugs would be used up in days," Webster said. "It would take up to 18 months to make more drugs from scratch. Stockpiling is the only answer."
The warning of a potentially imminent influenza pandemic (worldwide epidemic) is based in part on the occurrence this year of two different outbreaks of avian (bird) flu that jumped to humans, causing fatal infections each time. The sudden occurrence of avian-to-human transmission could indicate that certain flu viruses are evolving quickly enough to pose a serious threat to human health. Such direct avian-to-human influenza virus transmissions were unknown before 1997.