As the first doses of swine flu vaccine were made available this month, it looked as though the public might be scared away from inoculations by the chatter of such disparate anti-vacciners as Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh. Now, of course, the opposite has happened: People are lining up at clinics and pestering their doctors for the vaccine, which is 12 million doses short of recent predictions. The country has about a fifth of what's needed to inoculate its most vulnerable populations.
With the swine flu spreading so quickly that it has been declared a national emergency, we can only be grateful that so far, the H1N1 virus has not mutated into something more deadly. Though the federal government moved with admirable haste in the spring to research and produce a vaccine, lack of foresight in the early years of this decade is now leaving the country short.
It's not like we weren't warned. There have been repeated problems over the years with flu vaccine supply. Pharmaceutical companies have at times produced more than they could sell and then, stung by the experience, produced too little. The manufacture of vaccines can take six months or more using the traditional method of cultivating the virus in chicken eggs, then extracting, killing and purifying it. In 2004, the U.S. supply of flu vaccine was cut in half after a single manufacturing facility in Britain was closed down because of contamination.