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Flu season exposes vulnerability to biological threats

It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has tried to sign in at a packed emergency room or who is trying to obtain scarce vaccine that Google’s Flu Trends tracker reckons that flu activity in the United States is “intense.”

But the country has been – and should continue – preparing for worse.

CDC data out Friday showed that the flu struck early this season, and it struck hard. The last time flu activity was this severe so early was during the particularly deadly 2003-04 season. Add an influenza cliff, too, to possible drags on the economy; normal flu seasons cost the country more than $10 billion. This year, more Americans cashing in sick days might push that toll up.

Americans are scrambling to find late-season flu shots. Manufacturers have been scrounging for spare supplies, but they have already shipped 95 percent of their run for this year; because of archaic and time-consuming production methods there’s not time to make more.

Pharmaceutical companies still mass produce flu vaccine in chicken eggs. But egg-based production isn’t great in a pinch; relying on it could be particularly deadly in the case of a wildfire flu pandemic, which would be far worse than what the country is experiencing now.

Following the 2006-07 bird flu scare and the 2009 swine flu pandemic, experts recommended an overhaul, which the Obama administration has begun. A White House panel found it took 38 weeks in the swine flu episode to produce enough doses for half the country. Shaving just a few weeks off that would have saved more than 2,000 lives. Using animal cells to produce flu vaccine is one technique that might make that difference. Another approach, known as recombinant-based vaccine production, could save yet more time. Last summer the Department of Health and Human Services announced it is investing $400 million with the goal of building sufficient capacity to manufacture pandemic flu vaccine for a quarter of the country in four months, using both of those techniques.

Making the country more resilient to biological threats should continue to be a national priority. In the meantime, you would be forgiven for obsessively refreshing Google Flu Trends.