WASHINGTON – Federal health officials said Tuesday that 2.6 million additional doses of flu vaccine (search) will be available in January, far fewer than the 48 million lost to contamination at a British manufacturing plant.
The shipment also arrives after the date the government recommends for vulnerable Americans to have had their shots.
That makes it unclear how helpful the extra vaccine doses will be. Most flu seasons peak in January or later, and it takes two weeks for people to develop immunity after being vaccinated. People should be vaccinated in October or November, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search).
"We're waging a comprehensive and aggressive response," Tommy Thompson (search), secretary of Health and Human Services, told a news conference. "We have good reason to be optimistic in our ability to deal with the flu season and protect the most vulnerable from its harsh effects."
He said there was enough antiviral medicine available to treat 40 million people — shortening illness in people sick with the flu and preventing illness in healthy people.
Between vaccines and antiviral drugs, enough medicine will be available to treat 100 million people this flu season, he said. Federal authorities have asked that healthy adults refrain from getting vaccinated to leave enough for those at greatest risk: the very young, the very old and people with chronic illnesses.
Thompson aggressively defended the administration's response to the shortage in the wake of criticism from Sen. John Kerry, President Bush's Democratic challenger, who has raised the issue on the campaign trail.
"No president or administration has invested more in the flu than this one," Thompson said. He pointed to a fiscal year 2005 proposal for $283.1 million, compared with $39.3 million in flu-related investments in 2001.
Kerry has said the administration failed to heed warnings about a potential shortage.
"If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism? If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program are you running?" Kerry said.
In Florida, Bush sought to ease Americans' concerns about the shortage, saying, "I want to assure them that our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots despite the major manufacturing defect that caused this problem," he said.
Thompson rejected the suggestion of one senator, Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, that the administration declare a public health emergency to better deliver scarce flu vaccine to people most at risk.
"The public health emergency would just create more confusion and not accomplish anything," Thompson said.
Chiron Corp. was expected to provide the United States with 46 million to 48 million doses of flu vaccine, nearly half the supply the U.S. government had expected. But British regulators closed its Liverpool facility because of contamination. FDA confirmed that Chiron's doses were not safe to use.
That left the United States with about 55 million doses available from its second manufacturer, Aventis Pasteur.
At a news conference Tuesday, Aventis Pasteur announced it could produce another 2.6 million doses, for a total of 58 million doses.
David J. Williams, Aventis Pasteur chief executive officer, said the company got better than expected yields from its two A strain vaccine production runs. And Williams made a hedge bet to order additional eggs. Beginning next week, Aventis Pasteur will grow more B strain in eggs to create vaccine that covers three flu strains.
The extra vaccine won't be ready for distribution until January.
Meanwhile, officials are looking "throughout the world" for additional vaccine, said Lester Crawford, Food and Drug Administration acting commissioner.
"It is not possible at this point to say exactly how many additional doses we will find or what the fate of them will be in the regulatory process," Crawford said.
Crawford said the FDA would give expedited review to flu vaccine produced by ID Biomedical of Canada. The expedited review — "weeks, rather than months" — means the 1.5 million Canadian flu shots could reach Americans this season, he said. The agency plans to send its own inspectors to ensure the Canadian facilities meet U.S. manufacturing standards.
"We have similar standards," said Jirina Vlk, a Health Canada spokeswoman. She said she expected the FDA to have the Health Canada records by the end of October.