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[Op-ed] Bio Sovereignty

Posted August. 22, 2009 08:49,   


Bacterial infection erupted at a production line in 2004 at the plant of the vaccine manufacturer Chiron in Liverpool, England. The British government immediately halted production there. The plant was producing 48 million doses of a flu vaccine set for export to the U.S. In the wake of the sudden halt in vaccine supply, the U.S. faced major confusion across the country. The vaccine’s price jumped 10-fold to 800 U.S. dollars per dose and vaccines were often stolen at hospitals. At the time, the U.S. was holding a presidential election. Democratic Party candidate John Kerry lashed out at President George W. Bush for the vaccine shortage, accusing him of incompetence. The matter became the biggest issue in the 2004 election along with the Iraq War.

Since then, Washington has started to pay attention to “bio sovereignty,” or a country’s capacity to produce and supply essential medicine, including vaccines, by itself. Without bio sovereignty, a country must depend on other countries for drugs or risk lacking the necessary supply for its people. President Bush persuaded Congress to secure a budget for bio sovereignty, saying the president has a duty to protect the American people against a pandemic as well as terrorism. Thus, Washington eventually secured enough Tamiflu for half of its population.

A vaccine must be supplied at the right time in the necessary amount to ensure that antibodies are generated in the vaccinated person’s body prior to an outbreak. To produce a vaccine against influenza, fertilized eggs are used. It takes months to produce the vaccine and plants in the first half make supplies for the next season. For this reason, if authorities fail to predict strains that could circulate next season or an emergency situation erupts, factories must start from scratch, rendering it extremely difficult for authorities to secure enough vaccines.

Korea has yet to secure bio sovereignty. The Green Cross plant in Hwasun, South Jeolla Province, is the country’s sole facility making flu vaccines, and only one domestic company has the technology to produce fertilized eggs. The government decided yesterday to spend an additional 170 billion won (136 million dollars) to procure anti-viral drugs and vaccines for swine flu, but the move comes rather late. Fears are rising that people pay extra or use personal connections to secure vaccines if a supply shortage occurs.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)