Millions of swine flu vaccine doses to expire, be burned
ATLANTA — About a quarter of the swine flu vaccine produced for the U.S. public has expired — meaning that a whopping 40 million doses worth about $260 million are being written off as trash.
“It’s a lot, by historical standards,” said Jerry Weir, who oversees vaccine research and review for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The outdated vaccine will be incinerated. The amount, as much as four times the usual leftover seasonal flu vaccine, probably 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 a government estimate. If all that vaccine expires, more than 43 percent of the U.S. public supply will have gone to waste.
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 instead 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 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Most leading health experts generally agree with that.
“We were faced with the first pandemic we’d had in 40 years. We had to ensure there would be enough vaccine for our nation,” Dr. Mark Mulligan, an Emory University researcher, said.
Many average Americans also agreed earlier this year, said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor who conducts polls on public health. He said a Harvard poll in January found that 59 percent of Americans would prefer the flu vaccine be overordered to ensure enough was available, even if it meant doses went unused.
Millions of doses of flu vaccine typically go unused every year and are marked for burning, but in recent years the leftovers amounted to closer to 10 percent of the supply, rather than the 25 percent expiring now. Government flu experts couldn’t recall throwing away anything close to 40 million doses before.
Government officials have known for months that they were looking at a huge surplus. According to an Associated Press calculation based on federal purchasing information, the dollar value of the 40 million expired doses is about $261 million. The government didn’t release an official figure, but Hall said the AP estimate was approximately correct.
In the flu vaccination campaign for this coming fall, swine flu vaccine is being combined with two seasonal strains in single doses. Manufacturers have told the government they expect to make about 170 million doses.
An influential government advisory panel this year recommended that virtually all Americans get flu shots each year. Still, that doesn’t mean all the vaccine will get used.
“No doubt there will be unused doses. This happens every time,” said Dr. John Treanor, an immunology specialist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.