Scrambling to ease an unprecedented vaccine crunch before the winter flu season hits with full force, New York City joined Illinois and New Mexico yesterday in ordering hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccine from Europe, putting increased pressure on the Bush administration to authorize the shipments.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) announced the city intends to spend $2 million to buy vaccine from manufacturers in Germany and France. When combined with 275,000 doses of vaccine coming from the federal government, the city would have enough to "protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers," he said.
Influenza claims about 36,000 lives annually, and already this year four New York nursing home residents have died from the flu. Bloomberg said he asked federal health officials for the 500,000 doses it says it needs to protect high-risk groups such as infants, senior citizens and patients with weakened immune systems. But when the federal government came up short, he decided to pursue other sources.
The purchase requires approval by the Food and Drug Administration because the vaccines have not been licensed for sale in the United States.
"We are on the hook for 200,000 doses at $10 a pop," Bloomberg said during a news briefing. "We are happy to go on the hook. I am not going to run the risk of not getting vaccine for people who really do need it."
This year's severe vaccine shortage has put the Bush administration in a political bind. Despite consistently opposing efforts to buy lower-cost prescription drugs from other countries, federal health officials are now trying to secure 5 million doses of vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline in Germany and ID Biomedical in Canada.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said during a news conference Oct. 28 that there is a "big difference" between his negotiations with foreign flu vaccine makers and efforts to import prescription drugs.
"This vaccine is going to be inspected by FDA inspectors based upon efficacy, safety, and it's going to go into the plants and do that," he said. At the time, Thompson said FDA teams were en route to Europe to conduct inspections. "If all goes well, then the vaccines would be available in a matter of a few weeks, probably around the first of December at the earliest, and no later than mid-December at the latest," he said.
Anyone receiving the specially imported vaccine "will be required to sign a consent form which indicates that they understand all of those ramifications," acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford said.
Bloomberg might not have found the additional vaccine were it not for the battle over drug imports. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) introduced Bloomberg to the European manufacturers. And Blagojevich made those contacts because of a state program that helps Illinois residents buy cheaper medications from outside the United States.
Illinois has committed $2.5 million for 300,000 doses of vaccine. If the FDA rejects the state's request, Blagojevich said he hopes to resell the vaccine to other European customers.
"The sooner FDA can get its work completed, the sooner we can bring these vaccines to the United States to the people who need them the most," Blagojevich said. Then, referring to Bloomberg, he added: "Now we have a powerful ally to encourage and persuade FDA to work quickly and swiftly to do the right thing."
In early October, California-based Chiron Corp. announced it had suspended production at its plant outside Liverpool, England, because of bacterial contamination and would not be able to deliver an expected 48 million doses of flu vaccine to U.S. customers.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced plans for distributing the remaining 10.3 million doses controlled by the United States to cities and states over the next two months. More than 2 million doses of that supply will not be produced until mid-January, when influenza often is in full bloom.