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Simulation of what may happen if a highly contagious and lethal airborne pathogen were to occur today. Map: Institute for Disease Modeling

The U.S. won't be ready to face a flu pandemic until it improves its vaccines, health care infrastructure, and coordination with other countries — all of which are top priorities for the White House, a National Security Council official said Monday.

"Influenza is a priority to the White House, and represents both a health security and a national security threat... Today, however, we cannot respond with the speed that we need to.""
— Luciana Borio, White House, National Security Council

Current preparedness: Speaking at a symposium hosted by Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multiple public health officials said they agree the U.S. isn't ready, and needs to improve its yearly seasonal vaccines, which range in effectiveness from below 30% to 70%.

  • 85% of seasonal vaccines are now created via an egg-based process that's less expensive but takes 6 months to develop and "is the state of technology, for the 1950s," Borio said. The remaining 15% are made from more expensive but faster producing cell-based or recombinant technologies.
  • Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently told STAT that the early indications show cell-based vaccines had 20% improved efficacy compared with egg-based vaccines for this past season.
  • Multiple panelists pointed out drug companies need an incentive to leave their egg-production process.
  • Another "concerning" issue, Borio says, is that China is not upholding its international agreements via the World Health Organization to share their viral samples with other countries so a more effective vaccine might be produced.

By the numbers: CDC says the 2017-2018 flu season was particularly bad because it had a prolonged period and the vaccine did not work as well as hoped. As of April 28, there were 30,286 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations recorded via FluSurv-NET and 163 children had died — 75% of whom were not fully vaccinated, per Borio.

Yes, but: Over the past decade, improvements have been made in flu surveillance, access and distribution of seasonal vaccines, production technologies, new antiviral drugs, a slate of adjuvants that boost the effectiveness of regular flu vaccines, the creation of a Vaccine Finder app and in lowering regulatory hurdles for new treatments, according to multiple panelists.

The holy grail: Panelists said improvements can be made now for seasonal vaccines, but the ultimate goal is a universal vaccine — one that can be given one time to boost the immune system's response to multiple strains of the virus, even newly developing ones.

What's happening now: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, who was not part of the symposium, told Axios on Friday that, assuming funding continues and trials go well, "some version of the universal vaccine" should be ready in 4–5 years, with the goal of creating a fully functioning universal vaccine in 10 years.

What's next: Researchers are also looking at new distribution systems via drones, skin patches sent through the mail, or an Uber-like delivery system.

Go deeper: Read what experts say we need to do to prepare for the next pandemic, why the most recent flu season was so bad, and a piece in Wired on why Big Pharma needs incentives to develop new vaccines.

Go deeper

Scoop: Trump-backed Perdue says he wouldn’t have certified Georgia 2020 results

Perdue at a December 2020 campaign event in Columbus, Ga. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue wouldn’t have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results if he had been governor at the time, the former Senate Republican told Axios.

  • “Not with the information that was available at the time and not with the information that has come out now. They had plenty of time to investigate this. And I wouldn’t have signed it until those things had been investigated and that’s all we were asking for," he said.

Why it matters: There has been no evidence widespread fraud took place in Georgia's elections last year and the November results were counted three times, once by hand.

Beijing Olympics: These countries have announced diplomatic boycotts

Photo: Zhang Qiang/VCG via Getty Images

Several countries, including Canada and Australia, have announced they will join the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to protest human rights abuses committed by China's government.

Driving the news: Leaders have faced pressure from human rights groups and others to boycott the Games, pointing to the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang region and other abuses.

Biden directs federal government to become carbon neutral by 2050

President Biden speaking to reporters outside of the White House on Dec. 8.

President Biden signed an executive order Wednesday that requires the federal government achieve multiple goals related to reducing its carbon emissions, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Why it matters: Meeting the objectives of the order would require a massive investment by the federal government to buy electric vehicles, upgrade buildings and change how it procures electricity.