Top U.S. health officials defend H1N1 vaccine effort

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Obama administration gave its most aggressive defense of the government's swine flu vaccine campaign, with top officials saying Wednesday that despite shortages, the program has been more successful than expected in some ways and that millions of doses are quickly becoming available.

While acknowledging that many Americans have been frustrated by their inability to get the shot, two Cabinet members held a briefing for reporters to ask the public for their patience, saying the program is expected to speed up quickly.

"What we want to do is reset, in a way," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during the briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, which was broadcast on the Internet.

"It is frustrating to stand in line and wait for vaccine. For those who have been ill and even those who have had loved ones who passed away, our sympathies couldn't be higher," Napolitano said. "But this is not a situation that is cause for panic."

The briefing occurred as the administration came under criticism for the slow pace of the vaccine's availability. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) sent a scathing letter to Sebelius demanding details about the lag in production.

Officials had projected that as many as 120 million doses of vaccine would be available by now, but later downgraded that projection to 40 million and then 28 million. So far, 23.3 million doses have become available.

Napolitano and Sebelius reiterated that the problems were unavoidable, to make sure the vaccine was safe and effective, and that the program ran into unexpected snags, including the virus growing much slower than expected and problems at factories filling vials and syringes. They recounted the administration's various efforts, including hastily arranging for 150,000 sites to distribute the vaccine and the recent emergency approval of a new antiviral drug.

Sebelius said that the first vaccine became available slightly earlier than expected and was produced in a record six months instead of the usual nine months. She added that it turned out that one shot would be sufficient for most adults instead of two, as initially believed, meaning that the amount of available vaccine will go twice as far.

"There's no question production started more slowly than anyone would have liked, but many of the other things that could have gone wrong have gone right," Sebelius said.

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