The United States will face “a significant shortage” just as the flu season begins, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health infectious disease chief.
The Bush administration asked the public to voluntarily ration the roughly 54 million flu shots available this year. The administration cannot take hold of the vaccine to enforce rationing.
October, a month before the typical onset of the flu season, is the start of flu shot campaigns.
“We will need the help of the public,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
The vaccine should be rationed to babies ages 6 to 23 months, people 65 years and older, pregnant women, nursing home residents, health care workers caring for high-risk groups, those living with babies younger than six months and anyone with a chronic condition such as heart or lung disease.
U.S. officials are not alone in their worries. The international community could also face a scarcity of the vaccine.
“The implications may be significant. There could be a shortage,” said Dr. Klaus Stohr, influenza chief at the World Health Organization. “It may be resolvable but that would require a lot of adjustment on the part of the other companies.”
British officials halted the license of Chiron Corp. for three months because of manufacturing complications at its plant in Liverpool, England.
During that time period Chiron cannot provide any of the four flu vaccines it produces, including Fluvirin, the top flu vaccine in Northern Europe and the No. 2 vaccine in the United States. The California-based Chiron has said it would not supply the vaccine during this year.
The news was a surprise to U.S. health officials who said they are uncertain about the suspension’s impact.
“We are just learning of the details,” said Health and Human Services spokesman Anthony Jewell.
Jewell said Food and Drug Administration officials are working with their counterparts in Britain and with Chiron representatives to determine the effect on the United States.
Chiron previously had planned to ship 46 million to 48 million doses to the U.S., but a contamination problem discovered earlier delayed its delivery.
About 1 million doses already in the United States will remain under Chiron control and will not be released to the public.
On average, flu annually kills 36,000 people and hospitalizes about 114,000 people, primarily the elderly.
Another vaccine manufacturing company, Aventis Pasteur, has said that they currently are producing at capacity and could not produce more vaccine until after November. MedImmune, another manufacturer, also said it couldn’t produce more than what they currently have planned.
Because vaccines are produced on demand, the manufactures don’t make additional supplies and have no stockpile to dip in to to cover the shortfalls.