U.S. regulators are set to travel to Germany and Canada next week to inspect some 5 million doses of flu vaccine, hoping to clear the shots for import and help in relieving the vaccine shortage, officials say.

Government health officials said last week that as many as 5 million doses of the flu vaccine could be available on the world market and announced that they were negotiating for their purchase. FDA inspectors are due to visit plants run by GlaxoSmithKline in Germany and IDBiomedical in Burnaby, British Columbia.

“If it is safe and if it meets our standards, then we will proceed to the next step and bring it in,” says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

If they pass inspection, the extra doses would become available around the first week of December, says FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford.

The U.S. has 61 million doses of flu vaccine in the wake of a shortfall left by the October impounding of 48 million doses bound for the U.S. from a plant in England owned by Chiron Corp.

The available doses are not enough to vaccinate the estimated 100 million people deemed at high risk of flu. The shortage has forced officials to redirect millions of doses and has also caused them to scramble for additional supplies.

Flu Vaccine Redirected From Military

Thompson announced Thursday that health officials would secure an additional 200,000 doses by redirecting flu vaccine shots from the U.S. military in exchange for an equal number of FluMist nasal vaccine doses. FluMist is only recommended for healthy people aged 5 to 49, making it appropriate for many military personnel.

“No military personnel will go without the protection of the flu vaccine,” Thompson says.

An additional 100,000 doses intended for distribution within the federal government are also being redirected to the vaccine supply now being managed by the CDC, Thompson says.

In addition to flu vaccines, elderly persons are also urged to get pneumococcal vaccine for pneumonia. Officials say that Merck & Co., maker of the PneumoVax vaccine, is boosting its production from 8 million to 17 million doses in an effort to spread the vaccine to more seniors this year. Pneumonia, a disease characterized by inflammation of the lungs, is one of the key complications of flu, sometimes leading to severe illness, hospitalization, and death in elderly persons.

Flu vaccine shortages have caused long lines of worried consumers waiting for access to shots, a practice health officials have been trying to discourage. Medicare Chief Mark McClellan, MD, says the program is prepared to reimburse beneficiaries who spend their own money on flu shots at a grocery store or pharmacy instead of at their doctor’s office.

McClellan says beneficiaries can send in the receipt of their flu vaccine purchase along with a form to receive payment for the shot in the mail.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Tommy G. Thompson, secretary, Department of Health and Human Services. Lester Crawford, acting commissioner, FDA. Mark B. McClellan, MD, administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.