Field Notes

Article excerpt

This distracted globe. The last Fellows meeting is scarcely a month past as I write these words, though it seems rather longer. Pace of life, perhaps, or maybe it's related to our having gathered in Washington, a city that for me carries a touch of the unreal. The heart of the meeting--a panel presentation with the title "Are We Ready for the Flu Pandemic?"--was certainly substantial enough, the sort of theme fully able to concentrate the mind (there being nothing for doing so like a personal prospect of death, as we're told). A hot topic coupled with extremely effective presenters--savvy, highly placed Beltway insiders, all knowledgeable about and sympathetic to bioethics, with varied dose-up sight lines on congressional and administration responses to H5N1 and company--and an arresting take-home message ("Decidedly Not"), generated a keen audience, who asked intense, probing questions.

Here's what struck me hardest in the picture the panel sketched out: our national tardiness reflects, in part, ongoing dickering between pharmaceutical companies and the government over the size of subsidies and indemnities to be guaranteed before the corporations are willing to knock out job-sized lots of vaccines and antivirals. One way of luring corporations into this business, according to one of our Beltway insiders, would be to give corporations an extra year of market exclusivity for their ten top selling drugs, by means of a wild card patent extension. The price tag: around $30 billion. A Fellow adopting the pose of a simple country lawyer (in actuality one Alan Meisel) had the temerity to pose an "Emperor's New Clothes" sort of question: why are we even talking about massive subsidies to private industry, when a "Manhattan Project" style public program could likely do the job for about $2 billion, a mere fifteenth of the cost? …