First, an interesting bit of not-so-trivial trivia. (Thanks to Alex Tabarrok of for these statistics.)

  • Annual U.S. deaths due to the flu: approx 36,000.
  • Annual U.S. deaths due to anthrax: approx. 1.
  • Spending on R&D to fight flu: $283 million.
  • Spending on R&D to fight anthrax and other biological agents: $5.6 billion.

Now that you're possibly thinking that the establishment has some problems with priorities when it comes to the flu, here's another disconcerting tidbit: According to a Washington Post article, "While many Americans search in vain for flu shots, members and employees of Congress are able to obtain them quickly and at no charge from the Capitol's attending physician, who has urged all 535 lawmakers to get the vaccines even if they are young and healthy."

Kind of crummy, eh? To be fair, many fewer congressional workers have been getting flu shots this year, heeding calls to leave more doses available for the elderly, sick, pregnant, or very young. Still, not everyone is inclined to do so. According to the article, "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), a heart surgeon, sent letters urging his 99 colleagues to get the shots because they mingle and shake hands with so many people." (Undecided voters will possibly be pleased to hear that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have both vowed to not get the shot.)

Flu vaccines in America are provided by only two firms licensed to do so -- Aventis Pasteur, a unit of Aventis (NYSE:AVE), and Chiron (NASDAQ:CHIR). This year some contamination was found at a Chiron plant, slashing the U.S. flu shot supply. The New York Times explained why there are only two firms involved, saying:

"In recent decades, many drug companies in the United States abandoned the manufacture of vaccines, saying that they were expensive to make, underpriced and not profitable enough. Flu vaccine can be a particular gamble, because the demand for it varies from year to year and companies throw away what they do not sell because a new vaccine must be made each year to deal with changing strains of the virus. Some companies dropped out because of lawsuits, and others because they determined that it would not pay to retool aging vaccine plants to meet regulatory standards."

As an example of how expensive flu-shot involvement can be, consider that Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:WYE) produced flu vaccine in 2002 but was able to sell only half of its stock because of slack demand. The company thus ended up losing about $30 million as it destroyed what it could not sell.

What do you think of all this? Do we need new regulations in order to ensure better flu shot supplies in the future? It certainly seems like it would be a good idea to not depend on so few suppliers for something so critical. Share your thoughts on our discussion board -- or at least drop in to see what others are saying. Right now you can take advantage of a free 30-day trial of our entire acclaimed discussion board community.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.