Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press Writer, Published October 22 2009
Virus winning race against flu vaccineSWIFTWATER, Pa. – The federal government originally promised 120 million doses of swine flu vaccine by now. Only 13 million have come through.
As nervous Americans clamor for the vaccine, production is running several weeks behind schedule, and health officials blame the pressure on pharmaceutical companies to crank it out along with the ordinary flu vaccine, and a slow and antiquated process that relies on millions of chicken eggs.
There have been other bottlenecks, too: Factories that put the precious liquid into syringes have become backed up. And the government itself ran into a delay in developing the tests required to assess each batch before it is cleared for use.
What effect the delays will have on the course of the outbreak is unclear, in part because scientists cannot say with any certainty just how dangerous the virus is, how easily it spreads, or whether it will mutate into a more lethal form.
Since April, swine flu has killed more than 800 people in the U.S., including 86 children, 39 of them in the past month and a half, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of all hospitalizations since the beginning of September were people 24 and under.
“We’re in this race against the virus, and only Mother Nature knows how many cases are going to occur over the next six to 10 weeks,” said Michael Osterholm, a vaccine expert at the University of Minnesota.
In the meantime, many states have had to postpone mass vaccinations. Clinics around the country that managed to obtain doses of the vaccine have been swamped. And doctors are getting bombarded with calls from worried and angry parents.
Federal officials counsel patience, saying that eventually there should be enough of both vaccines for everyone who wants them.
The delays have led to renewed demands for a quicker, more reliable way of producing vaccines than the chicken-egg method, which is 50-year-old technology and involves injecting the virus into eggs and allowing it to feed on the nutrients in the egg white.
In a sign of how rapidly the virus is spreading, education officials said 198 schools in 15 states were closed Wednesday because of swine flu, with more than 65,000 students affected. That was up from 88 school closings the day before.
“Right now, the vaccine is in a race against the virus, and the virus is winning,” Osterholm said.
The government now hopes to have about 50 million doses out by mid-November and 150 million in December, said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant health and human services secretary for preparedness.
“By the end of November, I think we’re going to be pretty well back on track,” she said.