The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:
Influenza vaccines are the best weapons we've got against a disease that each year kills as many as a half-million people, including 3,000 to 49,000 Americans. Yet this season's worse-than-usual flu in the United States underscores the limitations of the existing vaccines.
Shortcomings include the inability to rapidly expand vaccine supply in the event of an especially bad flu and the need to vaccinate people with a new formulation almost every year as the virus mutates. These are problems enough when it comes to coping with the regular seasonal flu. They spell potential disaster in the case of pandemic flu, which occurs sporadically (most recently in 2009) when an animal strain of the virus jumps to humans.
Better vaccines are on the drawing board. Developing them will require a joint effort by government and the pharmaceutical industry. The greatest breakthrough would be a universal flu vaccine that would protect against all viral strains, eliminating the need for annual and pandemic inoculations.
The U.S. government pays for much of this research. Yet it has limited means and little product- development experience. Making a new vaccine typically takes a decade and can cost $1 billion. A project of that size is better suited to large pharmaceutical companies. Most, however, have been loath to seriously invest in new vaccines.
Given this market reality, the U.S. government should design incentives to get the industry more deeply involved, and it should encourage other countries with manufacturing capability to follow suit.