TUESDAY, Oct. 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. health officials have managed to round up an additional 2.6 million doses of flu vaccine. But that is far short of the 48 million doses lost when British officials suspended the manufacturing license of a major flu supplier earlier this month.
Britain's decision to suspend the license of California-based Chiron Corp. left the United States with about 55 million doses available from its second manufacturer, Aventis Pasteur.
At a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., federal health officials announced that Aventis Pasteur could produce another 2.6 million doses, for a total of 58 million doses.
"I am happy to be able to report that David Williams [head of Aventis Pasteur] called me and told me that there's another 2.6 million doses coming from Aventis which will not be ready until January," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "Couple that with 2 million doses of FluMist [a nasal flu spray] and we have a total of 60 million doses of vaccine."
Thompson also said the federal government was in ongoing negotiations with Canada to acquire yet more vaccine. According to the Associated Press, ID Biomedical, a Canadian company, may have 1.5 million available doses. The company has been pulling together documents on efficacy and safety to present to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Thompson's remarks came just hours after President Bush, speaking at a campaign rally in Florida, defended his administration's efforts to supply flu vaccine to the nation.
Thompson said, "No president or administration has invested more in the flu than this one." He pointed to a fiscal year 2005 proposal for $283.1 million in flu-related investments, compared with $39.3 million in 2001, according to the AP.
Democratic presidential challenger Sen. John Kerry has been sharply critical of the Bush administration, laying part of the blame for the vaccine shortfall with the White House.
The U.S.'s annual flu vaccine supply was slashed nearly in half earlier this month when it was discovered that vaccine made by Chiron was contaminated with bacteria. Chiron was scheduled to provide nearly half of the nation's anticipated 100 million to 105 million flu shot doses.
More than 30 million doses of vaccine from Aventis have now been distributed, Thompson said. Another 24 million will be made available over the next seven weeks.
Despite the shortage, Thompson urged people not to panic.
"We need to take a deep breath," he said. "We have successfully worked through vaccine supply problems in the past, and are doing so this time as well. We don't want seniors standing in long lines waiting for vaccine. This is unnecessary, and may pose even greater health risks for some seniors than the flu. We are still in the early stages of the flu season and many more millions [of vaccine doses] will be shipped. There's still time to get vaccinated."
The government has also stockpiled doses of antiviral medications, Thompson said.
Flu shot priority should be given to senior citizens, very young children, people with chronic health conditions, and pregnant women. "Please, if you are not in a priority category, do not get a shot," Thompson implored.
Thompson also said he would not declare a public health emergency, as some members of Congress have suggested. "That would just create more confusion and not accomplish anything," he said. "We are already in a public health emergency type of scenario as far as the department is concerned."
It's not clear when any vaccine from Canada might become available. The vaccine would have to meet FDA approval, possibly under an investigational new drug application, said Lester Crawford, the FDA's acting commissioner.
"We will invoke our rigorous process in order to make that possible, if at all possible, and sales will likely be government-to-government, which adds another measure of protection," he said.
There is some question as to whether getting a flu shot after November would do much good.
The American Lung Association says that any time during the flu season is a good time to get a flu vaccination, but it strongly recommends the autumn for maximum effectiveness. Influenza usually is most prevalent in the United States during the early winter, according to the Lung Association, and it takes about two weeks for a vaccination to become effective.
"Influenza viruses usually change each year, so people should be vaccinated each fall with the new vaccine," the organization's Web site says. "October 15th to November 15th is the best time to get your influenza vaccine. However, it's never too late to get a flu shot," it concludes.
Obtaining vaccine from Canada would not conflict with the U.S. government's oft-stated opposition to importing prescription drugs from Canada. "Our concern has always been safety, and if we can find ways to import [drugs] safely, we would not have a difficulty with it," Thompson said.
Thompson also announced plans to establish an ongoing task force to make recommendations to the president and to Congress on how to attract more companies into the vaccine business. "There are many reasons for the souring of the marketplace, including the high risk associated with a complex production process, [and] unpredictable consumer demand that often leaves manufacturers with millions of surplus doses," Thompson said.
When asked if he favored the government guaranteeing a vaccine market to private companies, Thompson responded succinctly, "Yes, I do."
Meanwhile, some members of Congress, acting on the advice of the Capitol physician, got flu shots before they headed home to campaign this month, despite the vaccine shortage, the AP reported.
The physician, Dr. John Eisold, considers lawmakers prime candidates for getting and spreading the flu because of all the time they spend visiting retirement homes, holding babies and shaking hands, a spokesman told the wire service. President Bush said he would forgo the shot.
The CDC has more on the flu and the vaccine shortage.