washingtonpost.com  > Business > Columnists > Washington Investing

Got the Flu? Blame the Free Market

By Jerry Knight
Monday, November 1, 2004; Page E01

Couldn't get a flu shot this year?

When the flu hits and you're confined to bed, bath and not very far beyond, remember that you're suffering from the free-market flu.

The reason there's not enough flu vaccine to go around this year is that Americans have decided, consciously or not, that they don't want the government to get too deeply involved in health care.

_____Investing Columns_____
Washington Investing
The Color of Money
Cash Flow
The Week in Stocks
Personal Finance Special Report
_____Previous Columns_____
TV Company Takes a Hit on Stock, Ethics (The Washington Post, Oct 25, 2004)
Merger Delivers Princely Profit for DigitalNet Insiders (The Washington Post, Oct 18, 2004)
I.C. Isaacs Fashions Its Way To Chart's Top (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Fannie Mae Stock Ratings Warrant Their Own Analysis (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
Insider Traders Who Push Too Far Can Pay Dearly (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
More Washington Investing Columns
_____The Markets_____
Dow Over 12 Months
Nasdaq Over 12 Months
S&P 500 Over 12 Months

Protecting the nation from the annual, inevitable bout with influenza has been left entirely to the private sector, even though every year the flu kills many more Americans than have died in the Iraq war -- 36,000 of us annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The government's primary role merely is to assemble the nation's most knowledgeable scientists every year to tell the drug companies what kind of flu vaccine to make based on the various strains making their way around the globe.

What happens after that is left up to the market. And these days the market does not provide much incentive for anybody to make flu vaccine and try to sell it.

Merck & Co. abandoned the business almost 20 years ago. Wyeth pulled out last year after throwing away about one-third of the flu vaccine it made for the 2002-03 season because it didn't sell.

That leaves just three companies in the business -- Aventis Pasteur Inc., Chiron Corp. (the company whose entire output for the United States had to be destroyed because of contamination) and MedImmune Inc. of Gaithersburg, the region's biggest biotech company.

Huge amounts of flu vaccine are trashed every year -- about one out of every dozen doses, said Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., an infectious-disease expert who serves on the government panel that decides what kind of vaccine is needed each year.

Is there any other business that wastes so much? Airlines, certainly. All those unsold empty seats are why four airlines are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Dumping more than 8 percent of your output every year is not a good business plan.

CONTINUED    1 2 3    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company