Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A shot in the arm

October 13, 2006

THE MARKET FOR VACCINES has long been anemic. That's a major reason there are regular shortages of flu vaccine, and a chief worry about our ability to respond to potential pandemics such as avian flu. Making vaccines simply isn't profitable enough for the private sector but is often too expensive for the public sector.

That's still largely true, but there are some signs that the market is shifting. This week, Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker, entered the vaccine market by acquiring PowerMed, a British company that's developing a novel way of inoculating people more quickly. Last fall, Novartis increased its investment in a large vaccine maker, as did GlaxoSmithKline. The Bush administration is also developing vaccines as part of its $7-billion bioterrorism prevention plan.

What's behind the renewed interest? In the case of the government, the motivation is obvious: the public interest in preventing a healthcare crisis. For companies such as Pfizer, recent advances such as the process PowerMed is developing make investments in vaccine makers more attractive.

Most vaccines today are made from killed or weakened viruses that are grown in eggs, a process that can take up to nine months. But PowerMed uses the DNA of the virus, making it possible to grow it in a lab in as little as six weeks. Previous attempts to make vaccines quickly have fallen short; the treatments didn't work when tested on humans. But PowerMed has devised a new way to deliver the vaccine to humans that appears promising. If it works, it could substantially improve society's ability to respond quickly to pandemics and to save lives.

Meanwhile, immunizations for diseases such as measles, diphtheria and polio remain in short supply around the world. These vaccines were developed years ago and do not generate big profits, which is why pharmaceutical companies don't spend much time or money distributing them. But there is some promise here too. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently donated $1.5 billion to create the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which is working with pharmaceutical companies to develop and distribute vaccines in poorer nations.

Two years ago, the closure of one British vaccine plant wreaked havoc on the world's ability to respond to the flu. The investments by Pfizer and others show how market forces, in concert with the nonprofit and public sectors, can work in the public interest.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|