Public healthU.S. to bolster defense against infectious threats

Published 20 August 2010

The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise Review, released yesterday at a press conference by HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, concludes that despite the massive investments in biodefense after 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, the United States is still way too slow when it comes to responding to emerging health threats

A review released today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could lead to major changes in the way the United States prepares for public health emergencies, such as pandemics and acts of bioterrorism. Meanwhile, a new study by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has suggested a range of measures — both short and long term — that the United States can adopt to better prepare for the next influenza pandemic.

Martin Enserink writes that the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise Review, released yesterday at a press conference by HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, concludes that despite the massive investments in biodefense after 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, the United States is still way too slow when it comes to responding to emerging health threats. To change that, the plan proposes a series of measures to help academic scientists whose research promises to help fend off infectious threats, and more support for companies seeking to bring new drugs and vaccines to the market.

The review says that the federal government should become a “strategic partner” for scientists and business with good ideas to safeguard the nation. Among the proposals are one or more Centers of Innovation for Advanced Development and Manufacturing — perhaps founded in collaboration with the Pentagon — which would provide assistance to companies and government agencies trying to clear the hurdles on the path to new products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be better equipped to analyze the potential of new discoveries and smooth the regulatory pathway to bring them to fruition.

Meanwhile, PCAST analyzed the lessons of the H1N1 flu pandemic, which officially ended last week. Although vaccine companies did eventually produce an effective vaccine against the new virus, it took half a year for the first doses to become available and 38 weeks before the United States had enough vaccine to cover half its population. Had the virus been more lethal, those delays would have resulted in huge loss of life.

Enserink writes that in its report (pdf), PCAST recommends a series of measures that could shorten the critical time between the emergence of a new flu virus and the day the first vaccines are released. Among the recommendations: Surveillance for newly emerging flu strains should be boosted, so-called seed strains for pandemic vaccines should be developed faster, by preparing virus “backbones” in advance, and the cumbersome and often inaccurate potency tests for new vaccines need to be improved.

All of that could be done in the next few years, the panel says, but in the long run, investments are needed to do away with the outdated manufacturing process, in which the vaccine virus is grown in chicken eggs. The panel also says the elusive hunt for a so-called universal flu vaccine — which would protect against all strains — should be intensified.

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