The federal government manages many aspects of one’s life. Taxes, business regulations, and laws are a few. However, the government also manages healthcare substantially, including the procedures and possibilities regarding the research, development, and manufacturing of both viruses and vaccines. The difficulty of this area lies in the amount of jurisdiction the government should have over the creation and distribution of vaccines, especially in the case of an epidemic. The 1918 Spanish flu, which took the lives of around 50 million people (Billings, 2007), is likely the greatest example of complete lack of preparation on the part of the government with regards to healthcare. At that point, the United States was just beginning to industrialize. This made for a greater density of population in centers of commerce and manufacturing. Viruses thrive in these close quarters environments.
After the Spanish Flu began declining in early 1920 (Anderson, 2006), the study of viruses picked up slowly. 1939 was the first time that the characteristics of a virus, specifically the growth of bacteriophage in a cell and the burst which releases them, was accurately described (Helton, 2009). This research was one of many monumental steps toward our current understanding of viruses (Anderson, 2006). Now that the importance of understanding and predicting viruses is accepted, the issue we face in the 21st century is how to reach the most number of people in the least amount of time with the most effective solution. This question, however, requires insight into the entities that predict and react to viruses today.
Many opinions about how to tackle the research and development of viruses and vaccines has to do with two entities: the federal government and the private sector. These groups are constantly in some conflict, as the mentality between the two is very different. The government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is primarily concerned with the safety of a certain drug or vaccine. Testing a drug for FDA approval generally takes 8 to 10 months to complete (“Frequently asked questions,” 2011). Considering all drugs sold legally in the United States must be approved by the FDA, this is an unavoidable requirement that must be fulfilled. But consider the case of a widespread epidemic, such as that of the Spanish flu in 1918. In a span of two years, 50 million people fell victim to the disease worldwide. At the time, there were less than 2 billion people in the world.
But in 2012, with a population of over 7 billion people worldwide, there must be a more efficient route to researching, testing, and manufacturing these drugs. In 1918, 30 million people died in the time it would take the FDA to simply approve a vaccine should an epidemic sweep the planet. On top of the time needed to approve these vaccines, scientists would also have to be able to replicate the virus, study its activity, and create or modify a current vaccine to effectively combat the virus (Walsh, 2011). This task could take months in itself, especially if the Center for Disease Control (CDC), another government organization, works in the same way as the FDA. The bottom line is that these factions of the government are slow, expensive, yet thorough. However, the longer it takes to approve this vaccine, the more people will die because of it. In addition, the virus will continue to mutate and evolve. This could render the work of the organizations useless, causing further delays. This argument brings the discussion to a very different entity in healthcare.
The private sector of healthcare, which includes chiefly pharmaceutical and insurance companies, is generally known to accomplish the same tasks as the federal government, but with greater speed, efficiency, and at a lower cost (Carney, 2006). However, as a corporation, these companies exist for the purpose of making a profit. Differing from the government, companies can maximize their profits by cutting corners or skipping over potentially insightful research. The quality that is produced from the private sector could be questionable because of this. Competition and the patent system encourage this kind of behavior also (Carney, 2006). In order to combat this, there should be a system in which one entity “checks” or “balances” the other, as is present in our makeup of government today.
By allowing the private sector to spearhead research and development of new drugs, particularly in the case of an epidemic, one opens up the possibility of finding a cure quicker, cheaper, or more effectively. This desire for achievement will be driven by the existence of competition as well as the ability to make money by patenting the drug. With that being said, the FDA and CDC should maintain involvement, but with a less hands-on approach. The FDA should have the final say on the standard of drugs. If the FDA or another entity does not review products made by the private sector, the standard of current medicine will waver, leading to lower quality treatments and therapies. Furthermore, the FDA must streamline its process, especially in crisis situations. In order to fight against something, you must understand it. Simply because the government facilitates research into viruses does not mean that they are the only people capable of analyzing the data. The more people working towards a solution, the better the chance of success. These entities must work together to effectively predict, react to, and combat annual viruses as well as epidemic situations.
Anderson, S. (2006, August 29). Analysis of spanish flu cases in 1918-1920 suggests transfusions might help in bird flu pandemic. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-08/acop-aos082806.php
Billings, M. (1997, June 08). The influenza pandemic of 1918. Retrieved from http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
Carney, T. P. (2006, July 21). Big business and big government. Retrieved from http://www.cato.org/research/articles/cpr28n4-1.html
Frequently asked questions about the FDA drug approval process. (2011, November 14). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/SpecialFeatures/ucm279676.htm
Helton, R. (2009, December 12). Virus research: A brief history. Retrieved from http://www.expeditions.udel.edu/extreme08/microbes/viruseshistory.php
Public health agency of Canada. (2012, September 24). Retrieved from http://www.phac- aspc.gc.ca/influenza/index-eng.php
Walsh, B. (2011, November 07). Virus hunter. Time.