The avian flu has been migrating across the world from China in recent weeks. Authorities have destroyed 140 million birds to try to stop the spread. Already the virus has infected 117 people in Asia and killed 60 since December 2003. Those numbers dont sound high, but health officials fear it will mutate. Their worst-case fears are a repeat of a situation as horrific as the 1918-19 Spanish flu. That outbreak killed more than 500,000 people in the United States and up to 50 million worldwide.
This time things are different. The two major outbreaks since 1918 have been deadly, but manageable. The Asian flu killed about 70,000 people in the United States in 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu killed roughly 34,000 here in 1968-69. The last number is roughly how many people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say die each year from flu in the United States.
Why the difference? Health care improved immensely in the United States during that time. And, most notably, we now live in a world of antibiotics. A major reason why so many died from the Spanish flu was that it weakened their immune systems and they died from secondary causes. Antibiotics keep those other causes in check.
Now we face this new threat with even better medicine. Swiss drug maker Roche is marketing a new anti-viral drug called Tamiflu. The drug is useful both as a preventive measure and to treat patients who already have a virus. Tamiflu has had success with avian flu and everyone from governments to individuals has been trying to get their hands on the drug. The United States has already stockpiled 2.3 million doses and ordered 12.3 million more. Other nations have also been desperately stockpiling millions of doses of the drug.
But desperation makes people do stupid things. Companies in Taiwan and India have pushed ahead with plans to create a generic copy of Tamiflu, even though they didnt have the rights.
No wonder. Their own nations and even the United Nations were encouraging that illegal activity. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made vague threats against Roche, vowing: we will take the measures to make sure poor and rich have access to the medication.
In other words, the Roche patent doesnt mean anything to foreign leaders. Even here at home, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) bullied Roche with threats of losing its patent rights, though he graciously claimed the firm would be paid. Schumer argued that Roche is very simply putting profits ahead of world safety, but he knew the truth. It was Schumer who was putting his own desires over world safety by politicizing medicine.
Its not the first time politicians have done so. Foreign governments and left-wing do-gooders have fought U.S. drug companies over HIV drugs in Africa especially. Again, nations have claimed they have a right to overrule patents when it suits them, all in the name of world safety.
But every time they do it, they address only the current problem and make all future disease outbreaks more dangerous. They destroy the incentive companies have to make any product from drugs to dishwashing detergent profit. Taking away patent rights and making generic drugs without paying for the rights wont just discourage Roche from delivering new drugs, but it will impact every pharmaceutical company.
Health care officials and lawmakers are so caught up in the current battle that they are ignoring what is really happening. A 14-year-old Vietnamese girl was recently infected with a strain of avian flu that resisted Tamiflu. If the virus becomes resistant to available treatments, the world will once again have to turn to the miracle workers to save us from doom. But finding those cures takes time and money. It takes $800 million just to bring a new drug to market and that was before the latest onrush of drug lawsuits.
We can only pray that isnt the case. By arm twisting Roche, perhaps health officials will save all of us from the avian flu. But the ham-handed way they are going about it discourages companies from researching future cures. And that leads us to the real question: What would we do next time if the miracle drug isnt there?
Dan Gainor is a career journalist and The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow at the Media Research Center. He is also director of the MRCs Business & Media Institute. www.businessandmedia.org .