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Bless You, Oh Canada

In an abrupt about-face, the Bush administration sends the FDA to beg for flu vaccine from a Canadian manufacturer.
 
 
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For years, the Bush administration – at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry – has been blocking access to cheaper FDA-approved prescription drugs imported from Canada because it claimed they were not safe. But yesterday, in an abrupt about-face, the administration announced the FDA is in "active negotiations" to obtain an extra 1.5 million doses of flu vaccine from a Canadian manufacturer.

Acting FDA commissioner Lester Crawford said "the FDA would inspect the Canadian facilities to see if they meet U.S. standards" and, if they meet those standards, it is possible the Canadian-made vaccine "would make it to American consumers this flu season." The FDA did not explain why, if the safety of Canadian-made vaccine could be established so quickly, it still hasn't figured out whether prescription drugs reimported from Canada are safe. (For the record, the FDA "can't name a single American who's been injured" from drugs purchased from a Canadian pharmacy.)

Canadians Contradict Crawford

Crawford tried to save face by telling American reporters that "purchases of foreign vaccine would likely be done on a government-to-government basis, with U.S. authorities taking direct possession of the additional supplies," but Canadian officials said that's not true.

"Certainly not that I'm aware of," said Dr. David Butler-Jones, head of Canada's new Public Health Agency. "Given that the vaccine that is available is either in the private sector or already in the provinces' and territories' hands, largely, that would be kind of funny to buy that back."

Administration Was Warned

The president continues to blame "a production flaw" for the vaccine shortage, but the Bush administration received warnings about the vaccination supply and could have taken steps to diminish the problem.

After Chiron Corp. informed British and American officials on Sept. 13 that there were unresolved contamination problems at its Liverpool, England, plant, the British government responded by contacting other manufacturers and securing alternative supplies. The Bush administration, on the other hand, failed to act before all doses of the flu vaccine had been purchased. The administration had already ignored two GAO reports which warned of impending production shortfalls.

Too Little, Too Late?

The secretary of Health and Human Services also announced yesterday that 2.6 million extra doses of the flu vaccine would be made available through Aventis Pasteur, the one company still approved by the FDA to sell flu vaccines this year. Even with these added doses, 40 percent of Americans who want the vaccine will have to go without the shot. And the new shipment also will arrive well "after the date the government recommends for vulnerable Americans to have had their shots," making it "unclear how helpful the extra vaccine doses will be."

The new doses will not be available until January; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people be vaccinated in October or November.

Congressional Perk

There's one place in the United States that isn't experiencing a flu vaccine shortage: Congress.

"Directly contraven[ing] the instruction being given by the government's executive branch," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and the Capitol's attending physician are urging "all 535 lawmakers to get the vaccines even if they are young and healthy."

Despite the shortage, many lawmakers were quick to comply, making sure to get their flu shots before they headed home to campaign this month. Those who haven't gotten their shots plan to, like Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who said in an interview yesterday: "I haven't done it yet, but I want to." All told, the congressional physician's office "has dispensed nearly 2,000 flu shots this fall, and doses remained available yesterday." E-mail your members of Congress to see whether they're bypassing the lines to get shots for themselves.

Troop Readiness

AP reports, "At military bases already strained by the demands of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the men and women who defend the nation aren't being defended against the flu." Normally, "the Navy hospital at Camp Lejeune ... would be getting 50,000 to 60,000 doses of flu vaccine." This year, however, the base has yet to receive a single dose.

This is especially dangerous in a time of war: special operations Marines can be deployed at any time but will be vaccinated only after the Department of Defense decides how to dole out the military's supply. "If they get exposed to an area where the flu is epidemic, there is a readiness problem," said George Reynolds, director of community health at Lejeune's hospital.