This fall, from Bakersfield to Baltimore, tens of thousands of Americans lining up for their flu shots were turned away from clinics and schools. They waited for hours only to be told that the supply had run dry. It was anyone's guess when the next batch would arrive.
More than 4,000 children and adults nationwide have died this year from the swine flu alone, with another 22 million sickened. The flu season may have peaked, but in its wake we need to ask ourselves a grim question: How many deaths and illnesses could have been prevented had our vaccine supply remained steady?
Indeed, this is the third year since 2000 that a severe vaccine shortage has threatened our nation's health. In previous shortages, vaccines for influenza, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella ran out, endangering mostly our children.
While the vaccine shortage is international in scope, we cannot wait to find an international solution. We need to come up with a plan right here in California, a partnership between the public and private sectors, to produce enough vaccines to take care of our 40 million residents.
If we don't act quickly, I fear the next shortage might catch us in the midst of a pandemic far worse than this year's swine flu.
I am hardly the first to sound the alarm over the vaccine gap. Over the past two decades, leaders in government, medicine and the pharmaceutical industry have underscored the direness of the situation. Solutions -- more government oversight, less government oversight -- have bounced around the globe. So why does a critical gap between supply and demand still exist?
Since the mid 1960s, the number of vaccine makers has dropped from 37 to 5. Money is the simple answer. Most of the pharmaceutical giants would rather reap billions of dollars in profits by selling the newest pill for heartburn than hassle with the tiny returns from vaccine production.
To be fair, vaccine making can be a messy ordeal. It takes nearly a year to produce a tetanus vaccine, for instance. When a vaccine maker guesses wrong about the type and intensity of next year's flu, it can be left with a lot of vials on the shelf.
If food production is a matter of national security, the same can surely be said about vaccine production. Consider that four of the five vaccine makers are based in foreign countries. Only one of these behemoths has a vaccine production line in the U.S. When push comes to shove, a company based overseas is going to keep its vaccine supply at home rather than ship it here. Such hoarding is precisely what happened this year with 36 million doses of flu vaccine produced by the Australian pharmaceutical giant CSL.
So how can we in the Golden State solve a problem that vexes the world?
As a matter of physics, solving a shortage regionally is much more doable than solving it nationally or globally. California boasts major medical institutions and technology companies well suited to the task of overseeing a vaccine production program. If a home-grown pharmaceutical company wants to partner up with the state, we should welcome it. Even in our shaky financial times, the state can still provide tax breaks and maybe even free land as an initial incentive.
If no private partner is willing, the state can join up with some of the brightest minds of the UC system to devise a program. And if the public deems vaccine protection vital enough, California can pass the same type of voter proposition that now funds the stem cell project.
After the bruises of our recent budget battles, we need to reinvest in our pioneering spirit and remind the world that California remains a place on the cutting edge. The health of our citizens -- the need to stay one step ahead of viruses that are constantly evolving -- calls for nothing less.