Friday, November 15, 2013

Flue vaccine: a world-scale guessing game

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
It takes at least six months to produce large quantities of influenza vaccine. For vaccine to be delivered in time for vaccination to begin in October and November, manufacturers may begin to grow one or more of the virus strains in January based on their best guess as to what strains are most likely to be included in the vaccine.
 To improve the odds of guessing the right virus 6 months ahead of time, each flue shot contains a cocktail  of three weakened viruses. The hope is that at least one of them will trigger our immune system into anticipating the right flue. In essence, we force the immune system into overdrive (red alert state!) because we can't know the exact nature of the flu threat. When the guess turns out to be wrong, as that was the case with the 2009 H1N1 virus, we end up with a pandemic situation because our collective immune system is barking up the wrong tree.

Would it be possible to make a 10X improvement in the vaccine development process, so that the cycle takes 1-2 weeks instead of 18-20 weeks?

The current system is geared toward large-scale production and distribution, which requires government approvals, massive investment into manufacturing, etc. To deliver an order-of-magnitude improvement, we need a different system that produces the vaccine on the spot, bypassing the existing methods. Using 3D printing as an analogy, if we had a vaccine production kit that could be adjusted locally instead of globally, we would be able to kill two birds with one stone: make the right vaccine at the right time AND reduce vaccination costs.


tags: healthcare, tradeoff, dilemma, problem, solution

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