January 4, 2010

France Defends Swine Flu Vaccine Surplus

After buying more doses than needed and announcing plans to sell surplus stock, the French government fought off criticism on Monday that it had poorly planned its swine flu vaccine program, AFP reported.

Some 94 million doses of the vaccines for the A(H1N1) virus were purchased by French officials, as they were expecting to provide its population with two doses each, but only five million people have been vaccinated and one dose has been found to be sufficient.

After several opposition politicians took a swipe at the government, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a trained medical doctor, asked: "What would people be saying if the pandemic had been serious?"

He said officials are very happy that the virus turned out to be less virulent than they originally thought.

However, he cautioned that winter was not yet over and that there could still be a spike in illnesses that would prompt more people to turn up for their shot.

Meanwhile, the health ministry said Qatar has bought 300,000 doses and Egypt is negotiating to buy two million. France is also in discussions with Mexico and Ukraine to buy some of its stock.

"The government had provided pharmaceutical companies with a boon saying that it was waging a campaign of fear mongering to try to liquidate the vaccine stock," said Socialist opposition spokesman Benoit Hamon.

Hamon believes President Nicolas Sarkozy's government is trying to justify the fact that it paid one billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) to pharmaceutical companies who are the big winners in this entire affair.

The World Health Organization said at least 12,220 people worldwide have been killed by swine flu, with the biggest share of victims in the United States and Canada, though it is now declining in North America.

Health authorities say a total of 198 people -- including 24 children under the age of 15 -- have died from the virus in France and its overseas departments.

But on Monday China said it had recorded 659 swine flu deaths in 2009, nearly all of them in the last two months of the year, and warned that the danger of mass outbreaks still existed in certain areas.

Liang Wannian, director of the ministry's emergency response office, said the danger of an explosion of outbreaks in some places exists, and the number of fatalities and serious cases will remain at a rather high level.

He said China has so far vaccinated 49.9 million people -- the largest campaign in the world, but still only a small proportion of the country's 1.3 billion people.