Topics: Obamacare

Here comes the next big healthcare disaster, courtesy of HHS

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Op-Eds,Obamacare,Health and Human Services,Kathleen Sebelius

And you thought the rollout of Obamacare was a catastrophe?

Here’s an immediate and critical pending national healthcare disaster — a new flu pandemic with nobody home at the Department of Health and Human Services.

This past April, a new strain of H7N9 avian influenza emerged in China and quickly spread throughout the region.

Though the H7N9 virus was only known to transfer directly from an avian source, numerous people were exposed to the disease’s devastating illnesses.

By the time the virus had momentarily vanished in August, a staggering 44 of the 134 infected had died, a 33 percent mortality rate.

At first, HHS took the necessary steps to address the new pandemic and prepare for the worst. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius determined that the virus was a threat to U.S. national security and to Americans living abroad.

Subsidiary offices of HHS, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the Centers for Disease and Control, recommended producing a seed vaccine, conducting clinical trials and, if the threat of pandemic remained, contracting manufactures to produce vaccine stockpiles.

Once the virus was identified as a legitimate threat, HHS moved quickly to contract with vaccine manufacturers to produce a vaccine and prepare for mass production if the virus was to resurface, as influenza viruses typically do.

It seemed as though the government was taking on this threat appropriately — until Sebelius’ slogging bureaucracy, those wonderful people who brought you Obamacare, took over.

In September, BARDA contracted three vaccine manufacturers for $110 million to put in order a vaccine and prepare mass vaccine stockpiles once HHS gave them the go-ahead.

Reportedly, HHS was supposed to provide the manufacturers with further instructions by mid-October.

Yet today, HHS still sits on the very production orders that are necessary to stockpile the H7N9 vaccine to protect against a pandemic.

HHS’s timing could not be worse, with flu season already upon us. As of this week, there have been four newly reported cases of the H7N9 virus in China, leading a spokesman for the World Health Organization to conclude succinctly: "Winter is starting."

While experts have stopped short of guaranteeing a spike in H7N9 cases, the threat of a pandemic is anything but far-fetched.

If the second phase of this virus evolves from an avian-transferred virus to a human-to-human transfer, we will see devastating results.

Perhaps staff at HHS should heed the words of their colleague, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC.

In September, Frieden warned that “nothing has the potential to kill more people than influenza. A strain such as H7N9 could create a pandemic. When something with that much potential to cause widespread harm emerges, we must identify it in hours or days, not weeks or months.”

It will take, at minimum, 60 days to produce the first wave of vaccine stockpiles once an order is given to vaccine manufacturers.

And that is just the first wave, a quantity that would be wholly insufficient for the American public at large. Protecting the entire U.S. population would take many months, time that, frankly, we may not have.

Unfortunately, now HHS has again demonstrated gross incompetence in its obligation to best promote the public health. Its eye is not on the prize of pandemic preparedness.

If the federal bureaucracy continues to stall on producing the H7N9 vaccine, HHS could face a catastrophe that would make the healthcare.gov storm seem like a light spring shower.

Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.
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