Colds and flu

02 July 2010

40m swine flu vaccine doses wasted

About a quarter of the swine flu vaccine produced for the US public has expired - meaning that a whopping 40 million doses worth about $260 million is being written off as trash.

About a quarter of the swine flu vaccine produced for the US public has expired - meaning that a whopping 40 million doses worth about $260 million is being written off as trash.

"It's a lot, by historical standards," said Jerry Weir, who oversees vaccine research and review for the US Food and Drug Administration.

The outdated vaccine, some of which expired Wednesday, will be incinerated. The amount, more than twice the usual leftovers, likely sets a record. And that's not even all of it. About 30 million more doses will expire later and may go unused, according to one government estimate. If all that vaccine expires, more than 43% of the supply for the US public will have gone to waste.

'Necessary risk'

Federal officials defended the huge purchase as a necessary risk in the face of a never-before-seen virus. Many health experts had feared the new flu could be the deadly global epidemic they had long warned about, but it ended up killing fewer people than seasonal flu.

"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," said Bill Hall, spokesman for US Department of Health and Human Services.

Most leading health experts generally agree with that. Millions of doses of flu vaccine generally go unused every year and are marked for burning, but in recent years the leftovers amounted to closer to 10% of the supply, rather than the 25% expiring now. Government flu experts couldn't recall throwing away anything close to 40 million doses before.

Uncertainty lead to over purchase

The new H1N1 swine flu emerged in April last year, hitting children and young adults particularly hard. 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 quickly as possible. What's more, they wanted a lot of it - many experts thought most people would need two doses for it to work.

The government placed three orders last year for a combined total of nearly 200 million doses - an unprecedented amount and almost double the amount of vaccine produced in recent years for seasonal flu. About 162 million doses were meant for the general public. Another 36 million included doses for the military and other countries.

But demand never took off, for several reasons:

  • Tests of the vaccine soon showed only one dose was enough to protect most people.
  • Much of the vaccine was not ready until late 2009, after the largest wave of swine flu illnesses passed.
  • Swine flu turned out not to be as deadly as was first feared.

About 12,000 deaths have been attributed to it - or roughly a third of the estimated annual deaths from seasonal flu.

So while people were waiting hours for swine flu vaccinations in some cities in October and November, by January local health departments were trying gimmicks to get anyone at all to come in for a shot. - (MIKE STOBBE/Sapa/AP, July 2010)


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Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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