One of the things Republicans would like to cut is spending on medical research. Well, here’s one example why that is a bad idea, and how a relatively small investment by the government has led to medical breakthroughs in fighting influenza.

As early as next year, more modern and more effective vaccines will hit the market, thanks to investments by the U.S. government and pharmaceutical companies. And even bigger scientific advances are expected in the next decade, including a “universal” flu vaccine given every five to 10 years that would fight many strains of a virus, making annual shots all but obsolete. […]

In 2006, HHS provided more than $1 billion in contracts to six manufacturers to develop cell-based flu vaccine technology in the United States. Although its use in flu vaccines is new, cell-based vaccine technology has been around for years, offering a faster, more reliable alternative to egg culture.

In 2009, spurred by difficulties in growing vaccine for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, HHS provided Novartis with nearly $500 million to build the first U.S. facility capable of producing cell-based vaccine for seasonal and pandemic flu in the United States. Novartis picked up the rest of the estimated $1 billion price tag. […]

In 2009, HHS’ five-year, $147 million investment helped bail out then-struggling Protein Sciences, and the tiny biotech has now produced the first gene-based vaccine to win FDA approval. […]

In 2011, HHS awarded VaxInnate a five-year, $196 million grant to make a vaccine that combines a bacterial protein called flagellin, a potent stimulator of the immune system, with a very small portion of flu virus called hemagluttinin, the outside part of the flu protein that gives flu viruses the “H” in their names.

Pharmaceutical companies do not like the business of vaccines because it isn’t terribly profitable. That is why the US Government’s investment in research and facilities to make better, more effective vaccines was critical. If the Federal government hadn’t stepped in nothing would have been done, and millions of Americans would be at far greater risk of dying from influenza.

Let me note that this was, at least on its face, a bi-partisan effort. One billion dollars was provided during a Republican administration in 2006, $650,000,000 in funding in 2009 under a Democratic administration, and just under $200 million in 2011. This means that infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems will stand a better chance of surviving each flu season, and also that the risk of a pandemic killer flu virus breaking out to kill millions will be lowered significantly.

Those investments led to medical breakthroughs in vaccine technologies, including the first gene based vaccine, and vaccines produced from faster, more reliable growth cultures that use dog kidney cells instead of eggs. Egg culture could take up to six months and the risk of contamination was always great, as we discovered in 2003, when contamination at a British plant led to the loss of half of the US flu vaccine supply for 2004. Well, lesson learned. The government had a vital role to fill, it took action and now we are reaping the benefits.

Those one time investments of approximately two Billion dollars in flu vaccine research and for a US based vaccine production facility do not amount to all that much when you compare it the what the roughly $600 Billion we spend yearly on our military. Imagine if our government invested $2.0 billion every year in medical research and development to combat viral infections? Or cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders? When you consider all the wasteful spending on behalf of our military industrial complex, and the little we often have to show for it in terms of the “common good,” I think dedicating a small portion of our funding to government/private sector partnerships to insure the safety, well being and health of all Americans is more than justified. I’d even go so far as to call it a national security issue, one far more likely to save lives than most of the trillions of dollars spent on our armed forces over the last few decades.

The next time Republicans speak about cutting “stupid” or otherwise “nonessential” federal spending, show them this story, and ask if they consider government investments to improve the health of all Americans a stupid thing to do.

Because one thing we do know: the pharmaceutical companies were not going to invest any money in flu research and production plants without a significant commitment of federal funds to limit those companies’ risk and maximize their profits when it came to the “flu vaccine business.” It took the Federal Government to step up to the plate and see that this got done when the “free market” was not willing to do so.

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