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October 03, 2005

CDC hoarding flu data

The Centers for Disease Control is hoarding critical data about the genetics of influenza viruses. Normally, this data would be made available to the scientific community as a matter of course. Now, as we face the prospect of a global influenza pandemic, the CDC refuses to share this data.

Revere has been covering the story at Effect Measure since September 22. (Part I, Part II)

Now, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has picked up the CDC hoarding story.

Kudos to the AJC for asking the critical question. Why is the CDC witholding this information? As Revere and the AJC article explain, the decision probably has more to do with profit than national security:

One potential concern that the CDC may have about sharing data is how it would affect any partnership it might now have with vaccine manufacturers, said David Webster, president of Webster Consulting Group, a health industry consulting firm based in Pennsylvania. The CDC might be concerned that those manufacturers might not be able to recoup their investment if the information is made widely available, he said.

"The CDC views partnerships with vaccine manufacturers as an indispensable skill set to get vaccinations manufactured and distributed on extremely short notice," Webster said. "If you don't provide strong commercial incentives for research and development, then public health will suffer enormously because a vaccine will not be developed." [AJC]

If this is true, the CDC is assuming that they will get more innovation out of vaccine manufacturers by creating a taxpayer-funded monopoly on flu data. This has all the marks of a Bush-era federal response: morally abhorrent and strategically dubious.

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There is a long history of monopoly thinking among those who feel the best organized society is one where the ruler can personally know all the major economic players. President Bush seems comfortable with a world in which he knows most of the people in America who have the power to create real economic change. Luckily America has a vital civil society which can not come entirely under the control of any monopolist. Nevertheless, it's clear that Bush does not represent the pro-competition faction within the Republican party. Bush would be at his ease in an aristocratic world where all economic management was in the form of government-granted monopolies. As such, his economic policy, however unplanned, harks back to that of the Stuart Kings, who took such policies to the furthest extreme such policies could be taken. Against such monopoly policy the English people rebelled and killed their King. For the sake of our health, the American people must also rebel. Considerable economic evidence suggests that competition brings forth more investment than monopoly. Whether it is the patent on the gene that creates extra risk for breast cancer, or genetic info on flu strains, maximum transparency and competition is the only path to maximum safety. Any other course lessens the amount that will be invested in finding a treatment.

The historian Christoper Hill does a great job of summarizing the economic policy of the Stuart Kings (1603-1642):

It is difficult for us to picture for ourselves the life of a man living in a house built with monopoly bricks, with windows of monopoly glass; heated with monopoly coal, burning in a grate made of monopoly iron. His walls were lined with monopoly tapestries. He slept on monopoly feathers, did his hair with monopoly brushes. He washed his face with monopoly soap, his clothes in monopoly starch. He dressed in monopoly lace, monopoly linen, monopoly belts, and monopoly gold thread. His hat was monopoly beaver, with a monopoly band. His clothes were held up with monopoly belts, monopoly buttons, and monopoly pins. They were dyed with monopoly dyes. He ate monopoly butter, monopoly currants, monopoly red herrings, monopoly salmon, and monopoly lobsters. His food was seasoned with monopoly salt, monopoly pepper, and monopoly vinegar. Out of monopoly glasses he drank monopoly wines and monopoly spirits; out of pewter mugs made from monopoly tin he drank monopoly beer made from monopoly hops, kept in monopoly barrels or monopoly bottles, sold in monopoly-licensed ale-houses. He smoked monopoly tobacco in monopoly pipes, played with monopoly dice or monopoly cards, or on monopoly lute strings. He wrote with monopoly pens, on monopoly paper; read (possibly through monopoly reading glasses by the light of monopoly candles) monopoly printed books, including monopoly Bibles, printed on paper made from monopoly collected rags, bound in sheepskin dressed with monopoly alum. He exercised himself with monopoly golf balls and in monopoly licensed bowling alleys. Mice were caught in monopoly mousetraps. ... "If such a system had been maintained," Mr Unwin wrote, "the Industrial Revolution would never have happened."

In modern times we've forgotten this awful period, though America's Founding Fathers were still quite concious of it. Section 8, clause 8 of the American Constition had a double role: to make illegal general patents such as those on salt, ink or bricks, while allowing a narrow, special class of patents that "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". In this light, patents on genetic info need to be reconsidered.

Hey, the CDC was wrong about AIDS.

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