FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 13, 2004
Schumer: Feds To Blame For Flu Vaccine Shortage; Announces Plan To Solve Local Crisis And Urges U.S. To Implement Immediately
Thousands in Central New York at risk as flu clinics throughout the region have been canceled; New emergency plan would import an adequate supply of the flu vaccine from Canada, Europe, and Japan
Schumer: Feds can't keep relying on a small number of Rx companies; Lack of a backup plan put thousands of Central New Yorkers at risk this season
Long term Schumer plan includes a g
With two of the four hospitals in Onondaga County reporting severe flu vaccine shortages, US Senator Charles Schumer today charged the Federal government with being woefully unprepared to deal with the situation and called for the immediate importation of emergency supplies from Canada, Europe, and Japan. With just two drug makers producing the flu vaccine for use in the US and no back up system in place, Schumer faulted the federal government for leaving thousands of high risk residents of Central New York in the cold this flu season. To ensure the high risk are vaccinated this year, Schumer called for importation of the vaccine from abroad. In addition, Schumer unveiled a long term plan to end the federal government's reliance on a few drug companies to produce enough vaccine, to guarantee supply levels, and to boost research into expediting production of flu vaccine.
"Last year’s flu outbreak should have been a wake up call but instead warnings of repeat shortages fell on deaf ears and now in one fell swoop this week at Chiron, we are once again backed into a corner, unable to protect even our highest risk citizens here in Syracuse," Schumer said. "Instead of taking steps to prepare for such an outbreak, the federal government sat on its hands for another year and let two drug companies have sole control over how much vaccine to produce for the nation. We have to put solutions for faster and wider production of the flu vaccine in place for the future and we have to deal with the immediate crisis by finding supplies from abroad."
The expected U.S. supply of flu vaccine was cut in half last Wednesday to 54 million doses, when British government regulators shut down production at supplier Chiron due to concerns about bacterial contamination. Chiron was to supply just under half of the 100 million vaccine doses planned for use in the U.S. this year. The remaining supplier of the flu shot to the U.S. market is Aventis Pasteur, which will send all 52 million vaccines it has produced. MedImmune, which produces the vaccine in a nasal spray that cannot be used by many in the high risk categories, is producing only two million doses of its FluMist vaccine.
There are approximately 185 million Americans considered most at-risk for the flu who should be given priority for immunization including the elderly, care givers, and children under the age of two. Schumer said that in Central New York the shortage could have a drastic impact on how many of these high risk residents receive the vaccination. It has been reported that the Onondaga County Health Department, University Hospital and the Internist Associates of CNY, among others, has ordered their vaccines from Chiron. St. Joseph’s Hospital is also reporting a drastic shortage. According to the County Health Department, only one nursing home in the Onondaga County out of 17 facilities and only 47% of the county’s 105 family practices and internists has supplies of the vaccine. Most of the area’s public clinics for flu shots have been canceled, including many scheduled to be run at workplaces by Community General Hospital.
To ensure these high risk individuals get their vaccination, Schumer announced that he is co-sponsoring a measure with Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy that would allow for the immediate importation of flu vaccines that have been approved for use in Europe, Canada and Japan. The measure directs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to perform an expedited review of these vaccines for immediate distribution in the US. Schumer said that the Federal government has a track record of under-preparing for a flu outbreak. Last year’s outbreak hit particularly strong and early in the season, causing a critical vaccine shortage by December. The shortage was blamed in part because drug companies, who were seeking to avoid any surplus of vaccinations, only produced 83.9 million doses for the winter 2003-2004 season, 11.1 million fewer doses than they did the year before. When the outbreak hit the US, however, it was too late in the production process for the nation's two flu vaccine makers, who need four months to make the doses.
Schumer said that not only is our reliance on a small number of drug companies to produce the entire supply of vaccines problematic, it is irresponsible and unnecessary. Currently vaccines are made using a lengthy four month process involving chicken eggs, however research suggests that using human or monkey tissue cells to develop the vaccines could reduce turn around time to just nine weeks. This means that in a shortage scenario such as the one currently facing the US, drug companies could have provided some vaccination relief by mid December, still early in the flu season. A few companies have been running experiments on this type of vaccine and one company, Baxter International, has received approval in the Netherlands to produce the vaccine. Baxter, which is set to begin round three of its US trials next fall, is not expected to have a flu shot ready for use in the US until 2007.
Schumer said it was the federal government's job to work with the drug companies to produce enough vaccine more efficiently so that a surprise contamination at one company does not cripple its ability to protect high risk Americans. He urged the Federal government to take several steps to prevent future flu vaccine shortages:
• Faster Turn Around Time: Developing ways to expedite the production of flu vaccine - Baxter International has developed a new vaccine whose production time requires nine weeks and uses tissue cultures instead of chicken eggs. The Baxter vaccine has not yet received FDA approval but has gotten approval in the Netherlands. Schumer called on the federal government to expedite the approval process for Baxter’s vaccine and to provide additional funding for research into even faster ways to produce vaccine and other, low-cost, non-injectable ways of delivering it to people.
A Government Guaranteed Vaccine Market: Bringing more companies into the flu vaccine market- Schumer today proposed that the federal government guarantee the purchase of an adequate supply of the vaccine. This will entice more companies to enter the market by alleviating the risk of a mild flu season in which they are stuck with surplus unsold vaccines. Drug companies now under produce in an effort to minimize this risk, however, if the government guaranteed their purchase, the US would achieve a greater supply of the vaccines. Schumer is also co-sponsoring a measure with Senators Bayh and Craig that would provide a 20% investment tax credit for companies to construct new or renovate facilities for improved vaccine production.
• Education and awareness campaign - If there is a guaranteed supply of vaccine, the CDC could step up outreach efforts and mount an even more aggressive education campaign to make sure that those most at risk for the flu get vaccinated.
"One of the reasons we have a federal government is to deal with situations like this one, to deal with the unknown and the unexpected," Schumer said. "The CDC and the federal government have got to start learning their lessons and take steps to ensure that we have a reserve on hand to contain that an outbreak, to research ways to expedite production of flu vaccine, and to make sure those at risk get vaccinated."
Schumer was joined by Onondaga County Health Commissioner Lloyd Novack; President and CEO of the Syracuse Community Health Center Dr. Ruben Cowart.