Task Force to Address Flu Vaccine Shortage

Federal officials on Tuesday announced the formation of a new government task force to help the nation deal with the flu vaccine shortage.

The announcement comes as health authorities struggle to respond to long lines and some confusion over the availability of flu vaccine (search) for high-risk persons.

Meanwhile, Aventis Pasteur (search), the only remaining supplier of injectable flu vaccine for the current flu season, announced it will produce an additional 2.6 million doses above current flu vaccine production plans. The doses bring Aventis' planned output to 58 million flu vaccine doses, though the extra doses won't be available until January, according to Damian Braga, the firm's U.S. president.

The announcement was welcomed by officials since the company initially indicated it would only squeeze 1.5 million extra flu vaccine doses from its 2004 production line.

Officials announced they are formalizing a task force including several agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson says the flu vaccine task force will advise the president on the ongoing handling of the flu season.

Thompson sought to reassure the public that the government will have enough flu vaccine and anti-flu medicines to inoculate or partially treat most people affected by the flu. The government now expects to secure some 60 million flu vaccine doses along with 7 million doses of antiviral drugs that can help treat flu symptoms.

"We do have the ability to deal with the coming flu season," Thompson says. "We need to all of us take a deep breath."

As many as 100 million persons are included in groups considered at high risk for flu by the CDC. The agency is now telling doctors and clinics to reserve flu vaccine for elderly persons, those with chronic medical conditions, babies between 6 and 23 months of age, pregnant women, and some health-care workers.

Thompson says between 2.5 million and three million flu vaccine doses will be shipped each week from Aventis and government stockpiles for the next seven weeks.

Flu vaccine shortages have spawned many reports of price gouging and are leading to long lines for shots at outlets around the nation. Disappointed seniors are seen on news programs nightly complaining that they waited hours for flu vaccines only to be turned away.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), the Democratic nominee for president, renewed his criticism of President George Bush's handling of the flu vaccine shortage on Tuesday. Kerry's campaign released a statement detailing a government report from 2001 warning of a fragile U.S. flu vaccine production system.

For years, the Bush administration was warned that the flu vaccine system was vulnerable because there were too few manufacturers and the federal government should work to get more manufacturers involved, Kerry says in a statement.

Thompson responded, saying the Bush administration has worked to increase federal funding for faster flu vaccine research and that getting more companies to ramp up new flu vaccine production facilities would take years.

"We have been planning for an event such as this literally since we walked through the doors" in 2001, he says.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services. Damian Braga, U.S. president, Aventis Pasteur. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Democratic presidential candidate.