Millions of H1N1 vaccine doses may have to be discarded

Natalie Marin, 7, was among the millions of people who received the H1N1 vaccine across the country.
Natalie Marin, 7, was among the millions of people who received the H1N1 vaccine across the country. (Alex Brandon/AP)
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - April 1, 2010
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Despite months of dire warnings and millions in taxpayer dollars, less than half of the 229 million doses of H1N1 vaccine the government bought to fight the pandemic have been administered -- leaving an estimated 71.5 million doses that must be discarded if they are not used before they expire.

Between 81 million and 91 million doses of swine flu vaccine were injected into peoples' arms or squirted up their noses through the end of February, according to federal officials, leaving about 138 million doses unused. An estimated 60 million of those will be donated to poor countries or saved for possible future use. But doses already in vials and syringes will be thrown away if not used before their expiration dates pass.

The prospect of millions of doses of the once-precious vaccine being discarded is the latest twist in the $1.6 billion program -- the most ambitious immunization campaign in U.S. history. The government-led effort produced a vaccine in record time, but unexpected production problems delayed delivery of the bulk of supplies until after the second wave of infections had peaked, leaving millions anxious and frustrated as they scrambled for the shots and nasal sprays.

Nevertheless, officials said they were largely satisfied with the effort, which blunted the impact of the first flu pandemic in decades. Between 72 million and 81 million people are estimated to have been immunized.

"Did we do as well as we would have liked to? No, not at all," said Anne Schuchat of the federall Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "But the country did an extraordinary job of responding. It's pretty incredible to think about how much uncertainty we had at the beginning of this."

Given the potential seriousness of the threat and the uncertainties of vaccine production, Schuchat said, it was unavoidable that some doses would go to waste.

"We were dealing with a very unusual situation. We had a pandemic. We had young people being killed," she said. "We wanted to make sure we had enough. We didn't want to be short. It was important to us to be able to protect the American people."

Noting that the virus still poses a threat, Schuchat and other experts stressed that they hope millions more in the country will still get vaccinated.

"It's too early to write the final chapter on this vaccine," said Michael T. Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. "If we're at the beginning of a third wave, I just bet you a lot of that vaccine that is sitting there will not be unused."

But officials acknowledge that it becomes more difficult in spring to persuade a skeptical public to get vaccinated, especially because the threat appears to be fading.

"We still don't know what the future is. We need to be nimble enough in case there is an uptick in disease," said Bruce Gellin, head of the National Vaccine Program Office.

The immunization program was designed to provide enough vaccine to protect every U.S. resident if needed. But antiquated technology dependent on growing the virus in chicken eggs delayed arrival of most of the doses. Fears about the pandemic fostered wide-scale anxiety and spawned long lines as the first doses trickled in amid the second wave of infections last fall. By the time the vaccine was plentiful, demand had dissipated.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company