July 1, 2010

40 Million US Swine Flu Vaccines Have Expired: AP

About 40 million doses of sine flu vaccine produced for the U.S. have expired, according to a recent AP IMPACT report.

"It's a lot, by historical standards," Jerry Weir, who oversees vaccine research and review for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told the Associated Press (AP).

The outdated vaccines are to be incinerated - as much as four times the usual leftover season flu vaccine. 

According to one government estimate, about 30 million more doses will expire later and may go unused.  Over 43 percent of the supply for the U.S. public will have gone to waste if the rest of the vaccines expire.

Federal officials defended the huge purchase as a necessary risk in the face of a never-before-seen virus. 

"Although there were many doses of vaccine that went unused, it was much more appropriate to have been prepared for the worst case scenario than to have had too few doses," Bill Hall, spokesman for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told AP.

Most leading health experts agree with that.

Millions of doses of flu vaccine go unused every year, but in recent years the leftovers amounted to closer to 10 percent of the supply, rather than the 25 percent expiring now.

The new H1N1 swine flu emerged in April of last year.  It was difficult to predict how deadly it might be or how easily it might spread.  Federal health officials pushed five vaccine manufacturers to produce a vaccine as soon as possible.

Last year, the government placed three orders for a combined total of about 200 million doses.

About 162 million doses were meant for the general public, and another 36 million were for the military and other countries.

However, demand for the vaccine never took off.

By January of this year, local health departments were trying gimmicks in order to get anyone to come in for a shot.

Government officials have known for months that they were looking at a huge surplus.  According to an Associated Press calculation based on federal purchasing information, about $261 million was wasted on the 40 million expired doses.

The World Health Organization was attacked in Europe by commentators after the group declared the swine flu a global epidemic.  The critics questioned if WHO actually had ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Some critics say that a lot of anxiety was raised and money wasted, not just during the swine flu scare but also in government responses to bird flu and SARS, a respiratory virus that swept through parts of Asia in 2003.

"Each time the so-called experts told us that millions of people would be killed worldwide by the respective viruses. We have learned that the experts were utterly wrong," Dr. Ulrich Keil, a professor at Germany's prestigious University of Muenster and a WHO adviser, told AP.

"This behavior is irresponsible because the angst campaigns ... confuse the priority setting in public health," he said. The death toll from influenza epidemics is much smaller than the number killed annually by chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, he added, in an email.

The June 30 expiration date is set by the FDA and has less to do with the vaccine's shelf life than the desire to tweak the recipe each year to try and protect against new flu strains.

"It's not necessarily because it's degraded or not potent," said Dr. Mark Mulligan, an Emory University vaccine researcher.

About 114 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine were distributed in the past year.  The government believes that most of those were used.

Swine flu vaccine is being combined with two seasonal strains in single doses.  Manufacturers have told the government they expect to make about 170 million doses.

An influential government advisory panel this year recommended that virtually all Americans get flu shots every year.  That does not mean that it will all get used.

"No doubt there will be unused doses. This happens every time," Dr. John Treanor, an immunology specialist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told AP.


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