Sebelius: Pandemic uncovered technology's weaknesses

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke at the 2010 Public Health Preparedness Summit on Feb. 16 about the lessons learned so far from the response to the H1N1 flu pandemic and efforts to strengthen health preparedness.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials coordinated the summit in collaboration with federal, state and local partners in public health.

At the summit, Sebelius discussed the investments in health preparedness that helped the U.S. government mount an aggressive and coordinated response to the H1N1 flu virus discovered in April 2009. 

“When the H1N1 flu hit in April, preparation paid off,” she said. “Working with partners in government, industry, and around the world, we rapidly characterized the virus, developed a candidate vaccine, made sure it was safe, and began production. By acting quickly, we made the first doses of the vaccine available in October, less than six months after the flu was identified.”

Sebelius commended state and local partners for their role in the response to the H1N1 flu pandemic.

“But I want to stress that the H1N1 flu is still circulating and is still a dangerous disease. The one thing we know for certain about the flu is that it’s unpredictable.“

She pointed out that the biggest lesson learned was the limits of current vaccine technology.

“This fall, our efforts to rapidly produce vaccine and get it out to communities ran up against a hard fact: We were fighting the 2009 H1N1 flu with vaccine technology from the 1950s. We could hurry to develop a vaccine candidate, verify its safety and clear production facilities, but there was nothing we could do to make the vaccine grow faster in eggs,” she said. 

“It was like an old car we had tuned up but still couldn’t accelerate the way we needed it to. And the conclusion is clear: if we want to avoid these problems in the future, we needed to continue to make long-term investments in developing countermeasures that are safe and effective, but can be produced faster and more reliably.

For the next threat, the government would like to develop, produce, and deliver a vaccine within weeks, not months, Sebelius added.