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Officials: Stay Calm on Swine Flu Vaccine

Swine Flu Vaccine Gap Is Closing, Health and Homeland Secretaries Say
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 28, 2009 - The H1N1 swine flu vaccine demand/supply gap is closing, two top administration officials said today.

The promise came in a joint appearance by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, held to soothe U.S. frustrations over the slow rollout of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine program.

H1N1 swine flu continues to sweep the nation -- and so do complaints about long lines and insufficient vaccine supplies.

"This is not a situation that calls for panic," Napolitano said. "The protection of the country as a whole is under way. ... The thing we have to do now is work our way through the sequence of events. That sequence is that states have opened 150,000 vaccination sites, and every day that goes by, more vaccine is being made available."

Napolitano and Sebelius said they understood Americans' frustrations over the slower-than-predicted availability of H1N1 swine flu vaccine. But they defended the decision to ship vaccine doses as soon as they became available, rather than waiting for production of enough vaccine to ensure a smooth-running program.

Sebelius noted that the original plan had been to start the vaccination program around Oct. 15. But advisory panels made up of nongovernment flu and infectious-disease experts urged the administration to release H1N1 swine flu vaccine as soon as possible.

"We made the decision when some early vaccine became available to push it out the door, even though it was in much smaller quantities than we had anticipated," Sebelius said. "Since Oct. 5, when we began vaccinating Americans, more than 23 million doses have become available and more is being processed every day. ... That pace is picking up. The early problems and production challenges have been fixed."

Those problems include:

  • Early "seed" viruses did not grow well on hens' eggs.
  • The yield of viral antigen per egg -- the key ingredient in a vaccine -- was lower than expected.
  • Glitches plagued new "fill and finish" production lines manufacturers had added to speed vaccine production.
  • Each state has a different plan for how to provide vaccine to its citizens. Some states were less prepared than others.

Such problems are the rule, and not the exception, for a biologic product that is made via a 50-year-old process.

"There is no question that production started more slowly than anyone would have liked, but frankly, many things that could have gone wrong actually have gone right," Sebelius said. "We want folks to remember that a safe and effective vaccine was the primary goal, and we have arrived at that end goal. The supply to states is steadily growing."

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