The federal government has diverted 300,000 doses of the flu vaccine originally meant for federal employees and the military to high-risk civilian groups, such as people older than 65 and those with chronic conditions, officials said yesterday.
Injectable vaccine intended for 200,000 military personnel will be replaced with the nasal spray vaccine FluMist, which offers similar protection but is recommended only for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49, officials said.
The government has also located 5 million vaccine doses at Canadian and German plants. Officials will decide whether to import them after regulators from the Food and Drug Administration inspect the plants and determine whether the vaccines are safe and effective. No decision is expected until December.
Nearly half of this winter's expected allotment of 100 million doses of injectable flu vaccine was lost after the discovery of bacterial contamination at a British manufacturing plant, triggering long lines at clinics and fears that many high-risk people would not be able to get a flu shot. The debacle has become an issue in the presidential campaign, and the Bush administration has scrambled to minimize the fallout.
Yesterday's announcement came at a news briefing by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson; the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Mark B. McClellan; the acting commissioner of the FDA, Lester M. Crawford; and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony S. Fauci. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Julie L. Gerberding, spoke from Atlanta.
"On behalf of the president, I want to extend the administration's appreciation to citizens across America who, in accordance with CDC guidelines, are forgoing the flu shot so that someone in a priority category can get one," Thompson said.
The foreign sources of additional vaccine supplies are a GlaxoSmithKline facility in Germany and an ID Biomedical plant in Canada.
The Bush administration has staunchly opposed the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other countries, but Thompson said the flu vaccine situation is entirely different. According to federal law, he said, the government can import medications once they are determined to be safe and effective. That determination has not been made for reimported drugs, but it could happen with the flu vaccine from the foreign plants, he said. People who get a flu shot made by these plants would probably have to sign an informed-consent form, he added.
Fauci urged seniors who have not recently gotten a pneumococcal vaccine against pneumonia to get one. Fauci said doctors have stocks of pneumococcal vaccine. Additionally, Merck & Co. will triple the production of the vaccine this year, to about 18 million doses, officials said. Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications of the flu.
Abby Ottenhoff, a spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), complained that the Bush administration is moving too slowly in seeking vaccine supplies from foreign sources. Earlier this week, Blagojevich asked the FDA for clearance to buy flu vaccine from Europe. Federal officials said they have scheduled a meeting for today on that proposal.
"This is a public health emergency, and there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who are elderly or very young children with weak immune systems who are very much at risk of severe sickness or death," Ottenhoff said. "We don't have time to spare."