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Health, Science, Environment

Pols lament: When it comes to any flu, the egg comes first

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., has taken on a starring role in a regional and national political debate that is heating up as supplies of flu vaccine continue to be tight.

The issue? After 60 years, why does the United States still use chicken eggs to produce vaccines?

Talent first brought up the issue in an interview last week. A video features Talent and former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. -- the vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the bipartisan congressional Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which is behind the new Website.

Both officials blame the delay in the development of adequate supplies of the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine on the United States' continued reliance on an old, slower method of using eggs to grow vaccines.

Both assert that the egg method threatens national security, saying the flap over slow H1N1 production signals the slowness in how the nation would handle a biological terrorist attack.

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services said this week that it had received less than a third of the H1N1 vaccine that it needs.

European countries generally rely on newer techniques that produce the vaccine faster. However, scientists and government officials in the U.S. say that the egg route may be slow, but it's considered the safest and most reliable. They've been on cable TV all week noting that some Americans still have qualms about H1N1 produced the old-fashioned egg way -- and say that high-tech production would likely heighten those fears.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, jumped into the fray with a statement that also indirectly referred to the "egg" issue.

“The onerous regulatory and legal environment in the United States has placed America’s most vulnerable in danger,” Blunt said. “The federal government has clearly failed to meet a basic responsibility to move quickly to ensure the availability of H1N1 vaccines.”

“Congress needs to be asking serious questions about why the vaccine isn’t yet widely available, even though we’ve known for six months that we needed to be fully prepared,” Blunt said.

The state Democratic Party swiftly shot back by noting that Blunt voted in June against a federal spending bill that included close to $8 billion to address the H1N1 vaccine issue. Blunt said at the time -- and again this week through a spokesman -- that his "no" vote was over other items in the bill.

In any case, expect a lot more eggs to be thrown during the political fight over the flu.

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