Wall Street swine and the vaccine scandal

Gary Lapon explains why the production and distribution of vaccine for the
H1N1 flu virus went so badly wrong.

November 16, 2009

[image: A vial of H1N1 vaccine]

IT WAS adding insult *and* injury to injury.

With hospitals, doctor's offices, clinics and schools around the country
waiting on scarce supplies of the swine flu vaccine, Wall Street giants
Goldman Sachs and Citigroup ordered up more than 1,000 doses between them
for company doctors to administer to their employees in New York City.

Distribution of the vaccine is a national scandal, but people's anger was
compounded by the news that the banksters jumped to the head of the line.
"Wall Street banks have already taken so much from us," John VanDeventer of
the Service Employees International Union wrote on the union's Web site.
"They've taken trillions of our tax dollars. They've taken away people's
homes who are struggling to pay the bills. But they should not be allowed to
take away our health and well-being."

But as disgusting as Wall Street's arrogant behavior is, the bigger picture
is more serious and much scarier--thousands of people are dying preventable
deaths, and millions are becoming seriously ill because the U.S.
government's response to the swine flu pandemic relies on a for-profit
pharmaceutical industry that prioritizes profits over people and a public
health infrastructure that has been gutted by budget cuts.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 3,900 U.S.
residents have died from swine flu--the strain of the flu virus officially
known as H1N1--since April (540 of them children). That's almost four times
higher than previous death toll announced by the CDC--and meanwhile, only 5
percent of Americans report having received the vaccine. Even before the
Centers' dramatically higher death tolls were released, President Obama
declared a national state of emergency because of the pandemic.

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HOW DID this happen? A recent *USA Today*/Gallup poll
"58 percent place a great deal or moderate amount of the blame for the
lack of vaccine on the federal government...and 62 percent blame drug

President Obama promised in July that 160 million doses of swine flu vaccine
would be available by the end of October. The Department of Health and Human
Services revised that estimate to 40 million and then to 28 million--enough
doses for just 17.6 percent of the 159 million Americans considered to be at
high risk for swine flu.

The government had plenty of time to prepare. Scientists have been
predicting this crisis for years--a virulent strain of the flu virus among
animals developing into a strain that affects humans, and spreading rapidly
because no one has immunity to it. The specific form of H1N1 that made the
jump to humans was discovered in pigs in 1998.

As Mike Davis, author of *The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of
Avian Flu*<>,
wrote in an article for earlier this
"[T]he central paradox of this swine flu panic is that while totally
unexpected, it was accurately predicted." Researchers, Davis said, "urged
the creation of an official surveillance system for swine flu. That
admonition, of course, went unheeded in a Washington."

The federal government, which can find trillions of dollars for the
occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and to bail out Wall Street, hasn't
devoted enough resources to build the public health infrastructure necessary
to develop and distribute vaccines to protect the population. Instead, it
relies on the pharmaceutical industry.

The government awarded $2 billion in contracts for the production of 195
million doses of H1N1 vaccine to the for-profit pharmaceutical companies
Norvartis, Sanofi-aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, CSL Limited and MedImmune--but
these companies so far have delivered just 20 percent of the original order.

As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in an article on<>,
the shortage is due to complications involving these companies' use of
outdated technology from the 1950s, which involves growing vaccine in
chickens' eggs.

Rather than invest in developing more efficient, reliable and effective ways
to manufacture vaccines, which "can be tricky and less than maximally
profitable to manufacture...Big Pharma...[traditionally prefers] to
manufacture drugs for such plagues as erectile dysfunction, social anxiety,
and restless leg syndrome," Ehrenreich wrote.

Congress, which voted to cut federal funding to ACORN after a handful of its
employees were caught on tape offering advice on tax-evasion to
right-wingers posing as a pimp and a sex worker, has so far remained silent
about the federal government's contract with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which
has a long history of wrongdoing.

In 2003, GSK paid an $88 million fine for overcharging the government's
Medicaid health program for low-income people, and in 2007, it paid an
Internal Revenue Service fine of $3.1 billion after allegedly using
"transfer pricing" to dodge paying billions in taxes, the largest tax
settlement in history. And in 2008, an FDA official accused GSK of
attempting to "sugar-coat" the increased risk of suicide among children
taking its anti-depressant Paxil.

Exacerbating the vaccine shortage is the inability of state and local health
departments to effectively distribute what has been produced. According to
Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC told a Senate health subcommittee that her
agency has had difficulties reaching state and local health officials who
are on furlough because of budget cuts that have come as a result of state
budget shortfalls--in a system already weakened by 15,000 job cuts over the
past two years.

But there's one player in all this that isn't suffering--the pharmaceutical
industry. The drug giants stand to make a hefty profit off of swine flu
vaccines--estimates range from $7.6 billion to $18 billion in sales
worldwide, depending on severity of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, people are waiting in long lines for hours for vaccines that
haven't been produced or distributed. In late October, ABC News reported on
a typical scene<>:
hundreds lined up starting at 9 a.m. at a makeshift clinic in a Chicago
school, scheduled to open at 3 p.m., only to be turned away 30 minutes after
the clinic opened because there weren't enough dozes to go around.

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SOME PEOPLE have drawn comparisons between the government's botched handling
of the pandemic and its failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Another parallel to Katrina is apparent when you see who is most impacted by
swine flu. According to the *New York Daily
"[H]alf of the H1N1 children's deaths between April and August were among
African Americans and Hispanics," though these groups account for only
around one-third of children in the U.S.

Like the poor and mostly African American residents of New Orleans left
behind to endure the Katrina disaster, poverty and racism are the main
factors behind why Blacks and Latinos are at greater risk for complications
arising from swine flu. According to *USA Today*, these groups are "four
times more likely [than whites] to be hospitalized with the virus."

Not only are African Americans at greater risk, they are less likely to seek
or receive the vaccine. According to the *Los Angeles
"African Americans received 2.57 percent of the initial 60,773 vaccinations
[in LA County], although they make up about 9 percent of the county

Loretta Jones of Healthy African American Families in South LA blames the
low turnout on distrust of the health care system. One stark reason for that
distrust, Jones said, was the "Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which lasted from
1932 to 1972, in which federal researchers withheld treatment from Black
men." But, said Jones, "it's more than the legacy of Tuskegee--it's a whole
lifetime of poor access to health care."

Like the uninsured patient who goes to the dentist with a toothache, only to
discover a mouth full of decay, the swine flu pandemic has revealed the
consequences of decades of privatization and cuts to public health and
social services--with the effects hitting working class people, and
especially people of color, hardest.

Instead of vaccinating the swine on Wall Street, the government should tax
them and use the revenues to produce vaccines and other drugs that are
accessible and affordable for all.