Remaining flu vaccine is rationed

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The government moved Tuesday to direct scarce remaining flu shots straight to pediatricians, nursing homes and other places that care for the patients who need them most.

But only a fraction of the 22.4 million doses that maker Aventis Pasteur has yet to ship can be diverted to areas with the biggest shortages. And officials acknowledged Tuesday that even if planned rationing goes well, there will be high-risk patients who struggle to get shots but can't find them.

"We're sorry for the people who need flu vaccine and may not be able to get it this year," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But we will take every step that we can take to get an equitable distribution of vaccine as quickly as we can."

The targeted shipments come as the CDC struggles to ensure that the youngest, oldest and sickest Americans -- those most vulnerable to influenza -- have first access to flu shots now that the nation's supply has been cut in half.

U.S. officials are scrambling for ways to make up the shortage.

Food and Drug Administration officials turned to Canada's major influenza vaccine producer in an effort to acquire an estimated 1.5 million extra doses.

Dean Linden, spokesman for ID Biomedical of Vancouver, British Columbia, said negotiations were "an evolving story."

There have been scattered reports of price gouging since the shortage was announced, and Kansas filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Meds-Stat, a pharmaceutical distributor. Attorney General Phill Kline said Meds-Stat proposed selling the vaccine to a pharmacy in Kansas City, Kan., last Friday for $900 per vial; a week earlier, the company was selling the vaccine for $85 per vial. Each vial contains about 10 doses.

Also Tuesday, two other companies revealed they had offered the government flu vaccine originally intended for sale abroad. GlaxoSmithKline has 500,000 doses manufactured in Germany; ID Biomedical is offering 1 million to 1.5 million doses made in Canada. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved either vaccine brand for sale in this country.

"It's not easy to get unlicensed vaccine into the country in time to solve any problems this year," Gerberding cautioned. "But we're not ruling anything out."

British regulators unexpectedly shut down a major U.S. vaccine supplier, Chiron Corp., last week, freezing shipment of up to 48 million expected flu shots.

That left Aventis as this year's sole supplier of injectible flu vaccine, a total of 55.4 million doses. More than half already has been sold and shipped, mostly to private distributors -- doses that can't be yanked back, although Aventis is asking customers to share any not reserved for high-risk patients.

Tuesday's plan targets Aventis' remaining shots. A shipment of about 14.2 million doses will begin this week, headed for pediatricians' offices, hospitals, long-term care facilities and Veterans Affairs clinics -- distribution that will take six to eight weeks.

Also on the list are state health departments that had ordered supplies only from Chiron and thus haven't yet received any doses. Gerberding wouldn't list the states Tuesday, saying more information on when and where shipments will arrive should be available later in the week.

"Be patient," Damian Braga, president of Aventis' U.S. branch, urged patients and providers. Vaccine shipments normally are paced through late November, when flu season is just getting started.

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