Swine flu vaccine leftovers pile up
Now out of date, $260m in doses to be incinerated
ATLANTA — About a quarter of the swine flu vaccine produced for the US 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 US Food and Drug Administration.
The outdated vaccine, some of which expired Wednesday, will be incinerated. The amount, as much as four times the usual leftover seasonal flu vaccine, probably is a record. And that’s not even all of it.
About 30 million more doses will expire later and may go unused, according to one government estimate. If all that vaccine expires, more than 43 percent of the supply for the US public 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 specialists had feared the new flu could be the deadly global epidemic they had long warned about, but 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 US Department of Health and Human Services.
Most leading health specialists generally agree with that.
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 specialists couldn’t recall throwing away anything close to 40 million doses before.
The H1N1 swine flu emerged in April last year, hitting children and young adults particularly hard. It was difficult to predict how deadly it might be or how easily it might spread. Federal health officials pushed five vaccine manufacturers to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible. What’s more, they wanted a lot of it — many specialists thought most people would need two doses.
The government placed three orders last year for a combined total of nearly 200 million doses — an unprecedented amount and almost double the amount of vaccine made in recent years for seasonal flu.
About 162 million doses were meant for the general public. An additional 36 million included doses for the military and other countries.
But demand never took off, for several reasons:
■Tests of the vaccine soon showed that one dose was enough to protect most people.
■Much of the vaccine was not ready until late 2009, after the largest wave of swine flu illnesses passed.
■Swine flu turned out not to be as deadly as was first feared. About 12,000 deaths have been attributed to it — or roughly a third of the estimated annual deaths from seasonal flu.
So while people were waiting hours for swine flu vaccinations in some cities in October and November, by January local health departments were trying gimmicks to get anyone at all to come in for a shot.