OP-EDS

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October 31, 2004

Stop blaming the big pharmaceuticals

According to the napkin-scribbled calculations the country's leading health experts have been performing somewhere, America has roughly half the flu vaccines that it needs. But fortunately the experts have sage advice for you: "Take a deep breath. This is not an emergency," suggested Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I am glad the head of the CDC has such a laid-back attitude toward these types of things.

I doubt this year's vaccine shortage will lead to the highly fatal pandemic the fear-mongering media have been insinuating. There have been three high-magnitude influenza outbreaks this century: the 1918-19 "Spanish" flu, the 1957-58 "Asian" flu, and the 1968-69 "Hong Kong" flu. If you assume the probability is time-independent, the country has a pretty good chance of getting through this year more-or-less unscathed.

This embarrassing failure, however, highlights the fact that our health-care system is broken. American commercial medicine was founded on capitalist principles: Reward innovation with patents and allow private companies to behave as they please, and the market will do the rest. The system worked brilliantly for decades, and America enjoyed health care second to none.

What went wrong?

Like any good conservative, I would at once suggest: Blame Canada. Less enlightened countries with varying degrees of socialism, most notably Canada, have scoffed at the free-market theory. They place price controls on patented American drugs. The Canadians still believe you can "eat your cake and have it too," as they like to phrase it. Americans pay more for American-made drugs than Canadians do—because Americans trust the market to work. Seventeen years of high drug prices are the incentive for pharmaceutical research and innovation, and the dollars consumers pay are directly reflected in medical strides forward. Essentially, Americans are subsidizing innovations from which the Canadians benefit disproportionately.

Which leads us to these hare-brained "import drugs from Canada" schemes. If politicians want to adopt price controls, they should at least admit it. So we don't have to ask Canada for drugs. America should really have more pride than that.

Big-pharmaceuticals, whom we can thank for ampicillin, acetaminophen, and fluoxetine, among others, are understandably disconcerted by this bizarrely engineered flouting of American patent traditions. The obvious conclusion—here I want to make it clear that this is not my conclusion, personally, but rather a conclusion that is obvious in a general sort of way from the situation as I have presented it above—would be for big-pharmaceuticals to stop selling drugs to Canada. The only problem would be that Canada might get a little upset, in the sense that it would be a diplomatic disaster, just below the magnitude of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Fortunately, our guns are bigger! I told you all those nukes would come in handy.

Although I think that the internationally-instigated socialization of the pharmaceutical industry is a serious threat to national health, I do not think that it is the immediate principal cause of the vaccine shortage.

For that I will turn to…let's see (flips to page 42 of the Republican National Committee Elections Manuel)…blame the lawyers! Hey, no one ever accused me of originality.

Over the past century, Americans' sense of entitlement has been growing exponentially. Citizens and undocumented immigrants are becoming increasingly convinced that there is, in fact, such a thing as a free lunch. This migrating sentiment has birthed a crop of slick, unscrupulous lawyers who see dollar signs in flukes, accidents, and human error.

Pharmaceutical companies rash enough to make vaccines, of course, are virtual gold mines. Vaccines are low-profit, high-volume products which, of course, developers are inflicting upon healthy people. The malpractice-lawsuit potential, largely because of the volume (but due in part to the use of thimerosal), is enormous and has indeed been exploited.

Far more ominous than the shortage, however, is big government's reaction to the shortage. I am particularly horrified by the notion of passing a law whereby doctors can be jailed for administering vaccines to non--high-risk patients. Governments have tried to play God before (the former USSR leaps to mind), deciding who gets bread and who does not. All those people who risk their lives to cross the ocean between America and Cuba on dinghies? They are all going the same way, the same way as those crossing the Berlin wall so many years ago. Omnipotent governments are often created with the most fervent idealism and the best intentions, but those are the bricks with which the road to hell is paved.

I propose a three-pronged plan to fix the system:

First, ban the use of thimerosal in vaccines. At the very least, require anyone administering the vaccine to inform each patient in writing if a vaccine contains thimerosal.

Second, forbid lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. I don't want punitive caps of a quarter of a million or something half-hearted like that. I want lawsuits illegal.

Third, allow and encourage the unfairly maligned practice of "price-gouging." In the short term (this year) price-gouging will probably only marginally improve the vaccine supply and equitability of distribution, but in the long term it will substantially incentivize production as well as make distribution Pareto-optimal.

Vote wisely. Or be sure to get enough sleep and drink plenty of fluids.