From an AP story about the H1N1 flu vaccine that was widely syndicated today:
Countries with flu vaccine plants might decide to seize all vaccines and ban their export, thus breaking the pharmaceutical contracts promising other countries vaccine supplies. These private contracts are not binding international law between two countries . . .
Picture this: in early September of this year, the novel H1N1 influenza virus mutates into a strain that can quickly lead to wracking fevers, violent vomiting, respiratory failure, dehydration, and death. It is also highly resistant to existing antiviral agents. The first cases of this new strain are identified after a spate of deaths in a Kansas City nursing home as well as among members of a church choir in the same city. The new strain quickly shows up in a number of major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and then in several European countries. As hospitals are swamped and the number of deaths rises unabated, borders are sealed between countries—but it’s too late to stop the new strain from spreading as the fall and winter flu season gets into full swing.
Luckily, the U.S. has long-standing contracts with several major pharmaceutical companies for the flu vaccine, which has by mid-September entered mass production in several locations. The only problem: up to 80% of the this vaccine is being produced outside the U.S. borders, and the people of the countries in which it is being produced don’t believe their leaders have any right to let those companies honor their contracts with the U.S. if it means a large portion of those countries’ populations will have to wait another several months for vaccination.
The World Health Organization (WHO) issues allocation guidelines for the existing stocks of vaccine according to their view of how best to counter the new strain’s spread and mortality rate worldwide, drawing attention to the skyrocketing death rates among developing nations with poor infection control procedures and tiny stocks of the vaccine, but the organization has no power to enforce these recommendations. The UN convenes a special meeting to address the worsening dispute between the U.S. and several European nations as the U.S. demands the companies must honor their contracts. Legal battles ensue; trade threats are made; ominous sabre rattling is not far behind as the U.S. population begins to demand drastic action from its leaders. There’s just not enough vaccine to go around; someone will to have go without.
Is such a worst-case scenario impossible? I sketched it out quickly, and no doubt it’s wildly overblown and full of details an expert in international law, public health, or foreign policy could quickly debunk–yet the AP story I quoted above suggests that nations might really find themselves at odds if the virus does in fact mutate and if production of a safe vaccine turns out to be as slow as the WHO has recently predicted it will be.
It’s unlikely, and there’s nothing worse than speculation that exists only to spread alarm and hysteria—but maybe it is worthwhile to at least consider such a scenario, if only to prove to ourselves exactly why nothing like this could really happen.