The Ebola outbreak has grabbed the attention of the country if not the world in recent days, but the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also concerned about a more mundane, but still potentially deadly problem: the flu. Thursday, the agency began seeking sources for "Medical Countermeasures for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response." In laying out the case for HHS's plans, the agency noted that the "public is at risk for a severe influenza pandemic," and that such a pandemic could cost 60 million lives or more around the globe:
The potential for a human influenza pandemic continues to be a public health concern. Four influenza pandemics occurred over the last century. In 2009, we completed the preparation and response to the most recent pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus. Sporadic infections of humans with avian influenza viruses with high mortality (H5N1, H7N9) suggest the public is at risk for a severe influenza pandemic. An outbreak of severe pandemic influenza could cause over 60 million deaths worldwide by some estimates.
Currently, five vaccine manufacturers are under contract for the Medical Countermeasures for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response program with HHS until September 2015 when the contracts awarded in 2012 expire. These five companies, along with other qualified manufacturers, will be permitted to compete for the new contracts. HHS believes the experience with H1N1 in 2009 shows the importance of having active contracts with capable manufacturers:
The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic demonstrated how crucial it is to have active contracts with manufacturers to respond to an influenza pandemic event; in 2009 the Federal Government rapidly modified existing stockpile contracts and issued task orders to manufacturers to produce millions of doses of H1N1 influenza vaccine.
Obviously, HHS is "uncertain which influenza subtype will cause the next pandemic." Therefore, even though the government maintains a National Pre-pandemic Influenza Vaccine Stockpile, it may or not be effective against whichever flu strain is responsible for the pandemic. But with proven manufacturers under active contract capable of producing millions of doses of the appropriate vaccine, HHS is confident that, as the Public Health Medical Countermeasure Enterprise Review issued in August 2010 says, the United States has "a system that can respond to any threat at any time."